A matriarch is a leader and usually the oldest female of an elephant community. The wise female elephant is considered living library of the vast rainforest domain.
The scientists working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and the University of Stirling, warned that killing of the matriarchs, the guardians of their community’s forest and social knowledge, could cause cascading effects on ecosystem integrity.
“We have been aware of the catastrophic decline of forest elephants since 2013. But, as with savannah elephants, the impacts are greatest when we lose the matriarchs,” said WCS conservationist Dr. Thomas Breuer, lead author of an essay received Monday.
According to scientists, the oldest females guide and teach their young where to go for food and minerals, what to eat, how to process tricky foods, and how to avoid danger.
“Without these mothers, forest elephant social lives and their understanding of their ecosystem will be lost. This exacerbates the ongoing loss of ecosystem function already underway by the loss of these most effective seed dispersers and forest gardeners,” the scientists said in the report.
Future conservation plans for the lesser known cousin of the African savannah elephant, according to the scientists, must include strategies that consider changes to elephant social structure, habitat integrity, and pressure from growing human populations.
Scientists conducting long-term studies on savannah elephants have documented numerous and long-lasting effects of poaching and other forms of anthropogenic disruption on behavior.
For instance, savannah elephants exposed to poaching become more nocturnal and more skittish outside of protected areas, which in turn can become more crowded with elephants and may be impacted by increased grazing.
The scientists say protecting complex forest elephant sociality and experience prevents downstream disturbance for elephants and their habitats and requires systematic assessment of the effectiveness of protected area networks.
The authors emphasize the need to better understand the impact of poaching on the life history and social organization of forest elephants.
Breuer and his co-authors say that forest elephants are probably experiencing and causing the same behavioral and ecological changes in their ecosystems as savannah elephants.
“Forest elephants play a crucial role in the seed dispersal of many plant and tree species, the maintenance of trail systems and natural forest clearings, and the distribution and renewal of soil nutrients across enormous areas,” the scientist said.
The loss of older individual animals, both male and female, affects the ability of populations to remain socially stable and robs other elephants of the survival skills of the most experienced members.
“We should assume that these disruptions of forest elephant society and rainforest ecology are occurring, and that these assumptions need incorporation into conservation planning,” said Dr. Vicki Fishlock of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and the University of Stirling.
“Lessons from elephant losses in Western Africa should be used to support human-elephant coexistence around refuges, until elephants feel safe enough to recolonize their former range,” Fishlock said.
He added maintaining forest ecosystem functionality requires anti-poaching and anti-trafficking strategies to halt the killing and allowing surviving elephant populations to recover. Enditem