A Lesson From Elephants About Family Disintegration

Elephants_Duma Tau, Botswana

Elephant Family, Duma Tau, Botswana

WARNING: This material is apt to be provocative, and for some, offensive.

THE FIRST TIME I SAW ELEPHANTS IN THE WILD – in their habitat – was in 1982, in Africa, on the Serengeti. We had approached a “herd” of nervous elephants who quickly formed a circle while their “leader” trumpeted us a clear message: “Come no closer!” And we did’t.



But I didn’t really grasp what I was looking at. What Thoreau meant when he said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” escaped me. I was simply a gung-ho photographer after images, and the philosophy of what was going among the elephants that staged the scene hadn’t crossed my mind.

Several years later I returned to Africa, this time to the Namib, the oldest desert on our planet. The Namib is also home to elephants – elephants who have evolved to adapt to the sparsity of water and insufferable heat of the desert. This trip was at a time when, slowly, I had begun my own evolution – from being a photographer who looked to becoming a “planeteer” who was learning to see.

No longer did I see elephants traveling in herds. They travel as multi-generational families. They live and forage as families, much as our hunter-gather ancestors did eons ago. And when elephants “circle,” as the nervous family did in the Serengeti, they are perceiving a threat and are organizing their massive adult bodies to form a fortress – a circle of love – surrounding their young.

The elephant family is led by its matriarch. It’s her wisdom, her “undaunted female intelligence” as ecologist Carl Safina puts it in Beyond Words, that guides her family.

Elephant Family, Namib

Elephant Family, Namib

Safina writes:

“The ‘matriarch’ makes decisions about where the family will go, when and for how long. She serves as the family’s rallying point and chief protector, and her personality – whether calm, nervous, firm, indecisive, or bold – sets the whole family’s tone.”

The wisdom with which the matriarch guides her elephant family is sourced beyond her years. Once she was a member of a family who learned from an earlier matriarch who had been a member of a family who learned from a still earlier matriarch, and so on – for some 2 million years. The wisdom she gathers over her long lifetime is cumulative, layered on the centuries-old heroes’ journeys of matriarchs from earlier generations. That’s how elephant families achieve their stability and shape their culture.

But, today, in most of Africa, those heroes’ journeys and the wisdom they impart to elephant families and their younger generations are being obliterated.

By ivory poachers.

At the turn of the 20th Century, when my mother was born, there were about 10 million elephants in Africa. In the 1930s, the decade of my birth, there were about 5 million elephants roaming over the African continent. By 1982, the year of my Serengeti venture, only about 1.3 million elephants remained. In more recent times, sophisticated ivory poaching (often from helicopters) has accelerated elephants’ demise – about 100 elephants are slaughtered each day by poachers. By the time I returned to Africa in 2013, this time to Botswana (my fourth African venture), only about 400,000 elephants survived in the wilds, clustered primarily in south-central Africa. (Botswana, elephants’ principal remaining homeland, is singular among African nations in that it has a done a stellar job protecting elephants.)

Poaching does more than kill elephants. Poaching also produces severe, radical consequences, forever distorting the character of the surviving members of decimated elephant families. Safina explains:

“[E]lder matriarch’s big tusks make them poacher’s preferred targets. Elephants are dying younger. Killing elders decades prematurely leaves their family members unprepared. Their matriarch’s death triggers … devastating psychological consequences.”

When elephant families lose their matriarchs to poachers, their families disintegrate. When elephant calves need the milk of their slaughtered mothers the calves starve. The experiences of elephant survivors is as traumatic for them as war is for human survivors. Safina continues:

“Older orphans sometimes wander in bunched-up, leaderless groups. Survivors, carrying traumatic memories, become fearful and sometimes more aggressive toward humans….To survive now, many elephants must abandon the learned traditions and knowledge – the cultures that had kept them alive….”

The wisdom of the elders – sourced in 2 million years of history, entrenched in the minds and memories of the slaughtered elephant family matriarchs, so essential to shape the future of younger generations – is lost forever. And with that loss, the future of the matriarch’s surviving family members is upended, worsened – in too many instances, irreparably damaged.

Safina also observes that, frequently, wildlife researchers study the nature of wolves, elephants and other wild animals by observing their young, captured and separated from their families at an early age, long before the wisdom and heroes’ journeys of their elders have shaped the course of their lives. Thus, the researchers misjudge the conduct they’re observing. What they’re seeing is a distortion – unguided youths fumbling for themselves the best they can – not what Nature had in mind.

WHAT ABOUT HUMANS, when growing-up experiences haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to the wisdom of their elders, shaped by heroes’ journeys that have, in part, become ingrained over the centuries in their DNA? There are studies of “Feral Children” raised in the wild that will shock you, I’m sure. (The short video below on Feral Children is worth watching.) But there’s more.

A good friend sent me a link to a 5-minute talk by Bill O’Reilly about the “American Race Problem,”, which O’Reilly attributes to the disintegration of the African-American family. I leave it to you to evaluate his talk, but a point O’Reilly makes is worthy of further thought. It’s his attribution of the disintegration to conduct that is a matter of “choice.” O’Reilly’s talk includes some facts. But do his facts represent “choice” as he advocates?

Certainly, the idea we have choices and live by our choices is an idea stitched firmly into our American Dream. Sheena Iyangar’s Ted Talk on The Art of Choosing has been seen over 2.5 million times. But she’s clear to point out that because we see ourselves as living by our choices, we seem to erroneously believe everyone else also lives by freely-selected choices.

I questioned, and wrote, in Chapter 20 of Wonderlust,

“But are “choices” — the kinds that shape young lives — real options for enough of our kids during their critical, formative years? … ‘Children don’t choose to grow up in families that are low literate, taciturn or emotionally unhealthy.’ … The idea that we all share in the American Dream and we each have the “opportunity” to climb the ladder of success as adults when we are willing to work hard overlooks kids who fail because of bad beginnings. If we don’t intend to trash our kids, we need to rewrite our story that all that kids need is an opportunity when they become adults.”

O’Reilly may agree, because he was talking about the choices parents of the troubled kids make. But he overlooks that those parents were once kids and the parents of those kids were once kids. The studies are quite clear: for too many of us, success or failure in life is pretty well shaped by the time we are 6 or 7. Could it be that perpetuation of a troubled history, rather than stories of heroes’ journeys, are modeling young, troubled lives?

Thats why, when I responded to my friend, I included this comment:

“This may shock you; but there is a similar issue going on in the culture of elephants – very bright, very social and very family-oriented. Historically, elephant families have been guided by the wisdom of their matriarch female elephants, often 50-70 or more years old, filled with guiding experience and wisdom. Elephant memories are long and real and the source of family guidance. But the killing of elephants for ivory have not only reduced the herds from millions to about 400,000, but have killed off the matriarchs with the bigger tusks. The result is that elephant families that remain are younger, less experience-led. The young are no longer guided by the wisdom of their elders [now dead], and thus, are more emotionally troubled, less able to find food, and less trusting.”

Could it be that the disintegration O’Reilly speaks about has ancient roots that cast a long shadow too many have not been able to escape? If we focus only on the present moment – the choices being made and not the roots of those choices – are we targeting systemic causes or merely salving symptoms?

The thoroughly-researched American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, authored by Ned and Constance Sublette, seems to come the closest to explaining systemic causes – the roots – of the problem that too many blacks have not been able to escape. Rather than honoring a past etched in uplifting heroes’ journeys, the present has never fully unshackled the chains of racism and slavery that have more than four centuries of history.

Safina writes in Beyond Words of ancient blacks in Africa clothed in steel collars, linked together with chains, carrying elephant tusks to awaiting ships.

The Sublets include in Slave Coast a June 30, 1820 letter from the Jefferson Papers, in which Jefferson wrote his friend John Eppes about “estate planning”:

“I know no error more consuming to an estate than that of stocking farms with men almost exclusively. I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”

In his review of the Slave Coast, Malcolm Davis writes:

“But to think about American slaves merely as coerced and unpaid laborers is to misunderstand the institution. Slaves weren’t just workers, the Sublettes remind the reader — they were human capital. The very idea that people could be property is so offensive that we tend retroactively to elide the designation, projecting onto history the less-noxious idea of the enslaved worker, rather than the slave as commodity…. ‘The South,’ the Sublettes write, ‘did not only produce tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton as commodities for sale; it produced people.’ Slavers called slave-breeding “natural increase,” but there was nothing natural about producing slaves; it took scientific management. Thomas Jefferson bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children was increasing Virginia’s capital stock by four percent annually.”

There is now growing evidence that this troubled history also changed DNA. In How Slavery Changed the DNA of African Americans, Professor Michael White writes:

“Widespread sexual exploitation before the Civil War strongly influenced the genetic make-up of essentially all African Americans alive today.”

In those early days of building what in the minds of many is the American Dream of freedom and choice, available to everyone, black fathers were sold, torn from their families. Black women were breeders, producers of children – additional capital that could be sold to increase plantation owners wealth. There are no heroes journeys in such a culture.

Shocking? Yes.

Unbelievable? Yes.

I have many books about wisdom and heroism of Jefferson and our Founding Fathers. My Jefferson Papers volume does not contain the Eppes letter. But the link I provide above locates the Eppes letter, among the archives of the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson after his presidency.

What I have grown to realize is that the ideas advanced today by many well-meaning people, that changing the economics and maybe the early education of troubled lives will set them on course, may salve wounds but it won’t cure systemic ailments. Further, the idea advanced by O’Reilly and those who agree with him, that life is simply a matter of choice and what we need to do is coerce the “right choice” regardless of the context in which the choice is made is also erroneous.

What has to be changed are the stories that guide these troubled lives. In writing about “choice” in Wonderlust, I include an interview with David Boulton, CEO of Learning Stewards, in which he said:

“By framing ‘failure’ as a choice — as a result of a purely personal decision or effort — we create the conditions in which millions of children blame themselves for difficulties that are in no way their fault. . . .”

What should be done, I believe, lies in the answer to this question:

How do we solve the problem of the historic loss of the “wisdom of the elders” within a troubled community and how can we encourage its restoration?

Perhaps working out the answer begins by understanding what’s being done in New York at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School.

Or maybe in Michigan, by The Hero Construction Company.

What we need to do is to assist these families not in burying their past, but, as Joseph Campbell so eloquently wrote, in beginning their own Heroes’ Journeys.

There are some important stories about choice and the American Dream that need to be rewritten.


When pondering the importance of the wisdom of the elders and the imprint of culture, consider:

When considering our own conduct in stressed situations, think about using non-complimentary behavior (I don’t think it’s NRA-approved):

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4 Comments on "A Lesson From Elephants About Family Disintegration"

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Thanks for the thoughtful and deep analysis of a challenging societal problem. May we all work to write new and peace-filled stories.


Very interesting.

When I think about the presidential campaign and the gillions of dollars spent to promote themselves, it further confirms how narcissistic these candidates are. If they can raise that kind of money for their own self promotion and if “the people” are willing to hand it over to them, they should all be ashamed of themselves……..there are way too many people and lives suffering everyday in our world and we certainly share the wealth in a better way to help each other. Love, Julie Marie

I fear for the world’s future when I see and hear of the plight of the families, and especially the children, in the Mideast conflicts. Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

Well said as usual, Richard. Much food for thought.