About five years ago, I came across a fascinating 60 Minutes story by Bob Simon that could easily serve as a modern day parable.

In South Africa’s Pilanesberg Park, an endangered species of white rhinos were thriving until an unknown killer began stalking them. Thirty-nine rhinos, ten percent of the park’s population had been killed.  Since the rhinos’ horns had not been touched, it clearly was not the work of poachers. There is not much in the wild that can kill a rhino, so the rangers set up hidden cameras throughout the park to investigate.The culprits turned out to be a gang of young bull elephants.  The young males were caught on camera chasing down the rhinos, knocking them over, and stomping and goring them to death with their tusks. The juvenile elephants were terrorizing other animals in the park as well. Such behavior was very rare among elephants. Why would these teenage elephants act like that?

As it turns out, nearly ten years earlier rangers took this group of young bull elephants from an overcrowded situation in Kruger National Park and transported them to Pilanesberg National Park in Northwest Province of South Africa.  At the time, the Rangers did not have the ability to transport adult elephants.  As a result, this herd of newly orphaned elephants grew up in the Pilanesberg without any adult role models.  “I think everyone needs a role model, and these elephants that left the herd had no role model and no idea of what appropriate elephant behavior was,” reflected Gus van Dyk, Pilanesberg Park’s field ecologist.

Years after arriving at Pilanesberg National Park, these lonely bull elephants developed into troubled teen-agers. That is when the killings at Pilanesberg Park started.  As the Rangers studied the elephants, a pattern began to emerge. The elephants picking on the rhinos were suffering from an excess of testosterone. The solution turned out to be the biggest “Big Brother” program in the world.

The rangers began identifying adult male role models for the youngsters.  Eventually they introduced six mature male elephants into the heard.  The older bulls quickly established a new hierarchy and let the teenagers know that their behaviors were not elephant-like.  In a short time, the younger elephants were following the older, more dominant bulls around while learning how to be elephants.  That meant that the testosterone levels of the young bulls came down.  That was good news for the rhinos, because since the big bulls had arrived, not one white rhino had been killed.

This story about the young bull elephants in South Africa shares many parallels with our at-risk youth in our very own cities.  In many urban neighborhoods across America, it is not uncommon to have over 75% of the youth to grow up without a positive male role model in their home.  The results have been equally as disastrous as those in Pilanesberg Park: dropping out of high school,  violence and crime.

Just like the young elephants, young people need mentors.  And just like Pilanesberg Park, where things did not improve until there was some outside intervention, our fragile neighborhoods will not turn around until mature mentors walk along side our at-risk youth and show them another way.  Thank you for your prayers and your support.