Breeding in a War Zone

Each day, 3 rhinos and 100 elephants lose their lives to poaching. It’s a tragedy of global proportion, threatening the future of both species. But poaching is also having dire effects on the living populations.

Rhinos

*Female rhinos reach sexual maturity at 6-7 years old, and males at 10-12 years old.
*Gestation is 16 months
*Babies stay with mom for 2-4 years

So any given rhino then needs minimally 10 years to successfully reproduce another rhino.

rhino courtship

During courtship, the female chases the male, vocalizing, the pair can become quite aggressive fighting and wrestling before copulation.

Elephants

*Female elephants reach sexual maturity at 12-16 years old, and males at 10 years old.
*Gestation is 2 years
*Babies stay with mom for 3 years

Any given elephant needs a minimum of 17 years to successfully reproduce another elephant.

elephants courting

Elephants do not choose one mate for life. Their courtships are brief, but affectionate, using gentle nuzzles and gestures.

Breeding During the Poaching Crisis

This means in the midst of widespread poaching, we must assume there ARE rhinos and elephants left  of appropriate age to mate; and that the mother is not killed before giving birth or while nursing.

In rhinos and elephants,  the females mate only after a baby is independent of them (avg of 3 years), but in areas with more prevalent poaching, the animals are stressed. This stress causes them to mate even less often.

Genetic Diversity (Survival of the Fittest)

With tusks and horns worth their weight in gold, a poacher’s goal is the largest tusks and horns he can get his greedy hands on.

The issue with this, is that generally the animals with the largest horns/tusks are also the most genetically strong within their species. Nature has a way of assuring a species’ survival.  When the strongest members of a species are removed, the remaining species will procreate, BUT with “lesser”, substandard genes.

It is too early to be sure of the exact effect this will have on the surviving rhinos and elephants, but surely there will be a consequence.

elephant group in Addo Elephant National Park

Elephant herd in Addo Elephant National Park.

Current Effect

The social hierarchy in elephants is complex and intricate. In a herd, the matriarchs (the oldest adult females) are the glue that hold the group together. They are the leaders, and the backbone. They are also the ones with the largest tusks. Without them, the youngest elephants are vulnerable, and the overall direction and cohesion of the group is lost.

In Secrets of the Savanna, Mark and Delia Owens noted in the Luangwa area, before the onslaught of poaching, elephants did not ovulate until 16 years of age.  Yet after the poaching crisis, females were reproducing at half that age.

In addition, their research indicated that elephants in normal, unstressed populations partook in  allomothering (care given by female relatives other than the mother) which greatly enhanced calf survival, and taught the adolescent females mothering skills. In fractured groups with lesser experienced females, this is not the case.

Nature has an uncanny way of handling adaptation. In high-frequency poaching areas, some groups were also being born tuskless.

Unlike elephants, rhinos don’t have the complex social structure. Therefore, when poaching occurs of a mother, the baby is immediately orphaned, and unless humans step-in, has no chance of survival.

A mother and child rhino pause briefly before crossing the track.

Rhino mother & baby in Leopard Hills Reserve.

Our majestic pachyderms don’t breed like dogs and cats. With only one birth every few years, and multiple deaths on a daily basis, the odds are stacked against them. So while our fight to stop poaching is to prevent death, it is mutually to encourage life.

 

o reconnect elephants’ natural migratory routes links protected areas together by creating habitat corridors,

 

Categories: Rhino Ramblings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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