Aging elephants are a bunch of rampaging hooligans

In my continuing efforts to highlight which members of the animal kingdom are just total jerks - looking at you, freeloading wolves! - I present the case of farm-raiding, crop-stealing elephants, and the young elephants who follow their bad example.

Crop stealing has become a very real problem for the farmers around Kenya's Amboseli National Park, who will often find crops eaten and fields trampled, all with a big pile of poop left behind as a sort of elephantine mark of Zorro or something. According to Notre Dame behavioral ecologist, it's almost exclusively male elephants that go in for this behavior, and only about 35% of the male elephants in the region actually turn to vandalism.

By tagging the elephants to see exactly who was going on the raids, Chiyo and his team were able to reveal the disturbing truth about these elephant hooligans. ScienceNOW has the story:

Some 20- and 30-year-old elephants did sneak over fences, but bulls over 45 were twice as likely to do so. Chiyo says this may have to do with musth, prolonged periods of heightened testosterone and aggression levels, which in most male elephants begins when they reach their full reproductive potential around 45 or 50. Males entering musth don't just go looking for mates; they rampage. This hyperactivity may sap the bulls' energy, forcing them to turn to potentially dangerous options, such as crossing into farms, to find food. But that wouldn't explain why some younger males were also raiding crops. With a little digging, the group found that they were following role models. Youngsters that ran mostly in packs with older bulls were also more likely to raid; in other words, they were learning their habits from patriarchs.

The key, ScienceNOW reports, is to turn these older elephants from dangerous influences into good role models. If the older elephants can be taught that the fields are too well protected to make raids worthwhile, they might not pass on that behavior to the younger bull elephants. But we'll see. As the old saying goes, an elephant never forgets...to be a complete bastard. Well, that might not be exactly how it goes, but I think I got the gist.

For more, check out ScienceNOW. Original paper at PLoS ONE. Image by SarahDepper on Flickr.