The Delinquents

Unsupervised elephant youth terrorized other wildlife — until adults set them straight

January 9, 20199:59 am
It was conceived as a rebirth of the Garden of Eden — until the rhinos started turning up dead.

This was in 1993, in the then-decade-old Pilanesberg National Park, in South Africa. Poachers, you might guess. But in this instance, the deceased animals still had their horns intact. Those critical clues led the park’s rangers-turned-detectives to keep looking for other suspects in the slaying of the endangered rhinos.

In what became a confounding case of whodunnit, all the usual suspects were ruled out. If anything, the forensic evidence — lacerations on the rhinos’ upper shoulders and back — seemed to indicate that the rhino killers had … tusks.

The very idea that elephants could be responsible for the rhino deaths was so preposterous that the Pilanesberg team set up an enormous stake out, with hidden cameras and radio-collared rhinos, to see if they could obtain visual proof. And, indeed, the stunned observers soon had such first-hand evidence — the ones who had committed the heinous acts were roving gangs of young male elephants.

“Observers reported that young male elephants had launched unprovoked attacks on white rhinos,” Dr. Graeme Shannon, then a behavioral ecologist from the UK’s University of Sussex — who studied the elephants of Pilanesberg with his Sussex colleague Karen McComb — told Moving Giants.

As Psychology Today magazine wrote in a piece years later, “This was virtually unheard of, anywhere. Elephants and rhinos certainly interact with one another in the wild, but it never ends in one of them killing the other — never. But here it had, and many times over many years.”

What could possibly have led these elephants to their rhino-cidal rage?