Elephants are known for their superior intelligence as well as their structured social order. One of the main characteristics of the social order in the herd is that males and females live entirely different and separate lives.
Elephants are a matriarchal society; that is, one that is led by a head cow, who presides over her herd of females. Each herd is made up of mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. They are guided by the oldest and largest female of the herd. This herd sticks closely together, rejoicing at the birth of a calf and mourning at the death of a member.
The herd of females, although maintaining close bonds among themselves, also interacts well with other herds, families, and clans. An average herd of immediate family will comprise of 5 to 15 adult elephants as well as immature males and females. As the herd grows, some members split to form new herds. In this way, families are divided and allowed to expand outwards. However, these members never forget their family roots and commit much time and effort to keeping track of their relatives through vocal and non-vocal communication.
The male, on the other hand, lives apart from the matriarchal herd, and travels alone or with other males in a bachelor pod. The drift from the herd starts during adolescence, at which time the young bulls start to spend less and less time with the herd. Eventually, the break is made completely. After this distance is established, the bulls will live solitary lives, mingling with the females of the family only for mating purposes. The bonds between the males in a bachelor pod are loosely established and loyalty is fickle. Males will frequently fight with other bulls over dominance as only the strongest are able to mate with receptive females. This ensures strong, healthy calves. When males fight over dominance, there are usually few injuries, although the fighting seems quite violent to onlookers. It is only during the intense breeding season that these encounters become somewhat more intense.
Same-sex bonding is common in elephants. This is usually in the form of affectionate trunk-entwining, kissing and placing trunks into the other animal’s mouth. Males will actually mount one another. Unlike the fleeting encounter between a bull and a cow, this mounting will last for much longer and often consists of an older adult with one or two juvenile males.
When one male splits from all other company and becomes excessively aggressive and violent, he is known as the rogue male. He will usually win at any domination battles and, therefore, mate with more females than the other bulls. This means that his offspring are strong and that the herd enjoys fairly pure genes.
Because elephants enjoy such rigid social structures and norms, they are able to form close bonds with those within their immediate herd and family, with females benefitting particularly from this security. This allows an enormous degree of trust and sanctuary within the herd.
It is for this reason, the incredibly strong social bonds between elephants, that the separating and confinement of these animals whether it be in zoos or circuses is such a cruel act.