In the last few weeks, two African elephants, both breeding females, died in European Zoos due to elephant attacks. “Swana” (27 y.) at Howletts Wildlife Park (England), a mother of four, passed away on April 2nd, 2013, while “Gustl” (23 y.) at Cabarceno (Spain) died even a few weeks earlier. Both succumbed to injuries caused by other female elephants. These incidents are just the newest examples of escalating conflicts between unrelated females in zoos. Conflicts like this occur everywhere in zoos worldwide and seem to be the rule rather than an exception in normal zoo herds.
However, serious aggressions are unknown between related females within a natural family unit, from zoos as well as from the wild. The researchers of the Amboseli elephant study concluded: “That study [Lee 1987] was unable to describe linear hierarchies within families since overt or escalated dominance-subdominance interactions were too infrequent in 1,750 contact hours of observation…This finding,…, suggested a norm of non-aggressive or subtle mode of interaction…” (in: Moss, C., Croze, H. & Lee, P. (editors, 2011): The Amboseli Elephants: A long-term Perspective on a long-lived Mammal). Within matrilinear family groups in the wild, an individual´s status is determined by its age and size, and the resulting hierarchy is stable.
The European Elephant Group believes that aggressive conflicts within zoo herds are not normal herd behaviour or dominance behaviour; they rather occur when an elephant´s social needs are not met in captivity. Incidents like these could be avoided if breeding groups were splitted up into family units in time, with a herd management aspiring to keep only a single maternal family unit per institution. This would have the additional benefit that no more zoo-born females would have to be seperated from their mothers in order to provide additional zoos with fertile females or to avoid inbreeding.