Old, male elephants are redundant within the population, a justification that has seen trophy hunters target these huge animals more under the false belief.

A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports has debunked the theory that old, male elephants are redundant within the population, a justification that has seen trophy hunters target these huge animals more under the false belief it’s sustainable. The research from the University of Exeter in the UK in collaboration with Elephants for Africa, looked at the movements of male African savannah elephants in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana, and found they played a significant role in training younger members of all-male groups.

Also known as bush elephants, savannah elephants predominantly live in herds led by females. There is a brief gap however between 10-20 years old when pre-adolescent males will leave their natal family group to spend the majority of their time in all-male gangs. The study investigated all-male elephant groups by looking at males aged 10-15, 16-20, 21-25, and 26 plus and found that older males played a key role in leading such groups. The researchers say that the oldest bulls in all-male groups were the most likely to lead the others when it came to travel as well as finding food and water.

The discovery flips long-held assumptions that older bulls are largely redundant within elephant populations, an argument trophy hunters have used to target these animals, which are also usually the biggest or have the most impressive tusks. The argument claimed the practice is sustainable in light of the elephant’s minimal role within the continuation of the species, ie past breeding age, but the researchers argue this new discovery highlights their importance in the survival and development of younger bulls.

Savannah elephant numbers are declining rapidly as they face threats from poaching, hunting, and conflict with farmers, with older male elephants being the most commonly targeted by trophy hunters due to minimum age limitations and their larger tusk size. Botswana recently passed a motion to lift the ban on elephant hunting in the region, legalizing the export of the tusks of 400 elephants spelling an uncertain future for these threatened animals.

“In areas that have severe poaching, as well as areas that practice trophy hunting, we see a reduction in the number of older males as these are the prime targets of these activities. In these areas we see a direct impact in reduction of mature bull numbers and models forecast a heavy skewing of the sex ratio in populations with hunting, towards both favoring females, and younger animals,” said lead author Connie Allen in an email to IFLScience.

“We hope our findings can help policymakers and hunting outfitters evaluate the potential negative impacts that occur from selective harvesting of older bull elephants. Management strategies such as hunting need to be constantly open to advisory from science, to be sure that policy is not detrimentally affecting the long term stability of elephant populations. This could be the case here, where removal of older bulls from populations could be hindering the inter-generational flow of information and critical knowledge about the navigation of resources.”

The article is originally published at ifl science.