Spotlight Africa: social disruption – why such a problem for elephants?

51-year-old Alison inherited the matriarch position of her family in 2005 when Amy died. The AA family rely on her knowledge to help them navigate life in Amboseli.Many of you will have noticed increasing global media attention on the crisis facing African elephants.

The ivory trade is exacting a heavy and bloody toll on elephant populations across the continent.

Given these immediate crises, it might at first seem a bit strange that The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is supporting the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in our efforts to understand how the relatively small Amboseli elephant population is recovering from a drought that happened three years ago.

I am not biased when I say that the elephants of Amboseli are special: they are the most intensively studied population in the world.

For four decades, the Amboseli Elephant Research Project has tracked the social and reproductive lives of the elephants living in and around the swamps of Amboseli.

Much of our in depth understanding of the normal undisturbed behaviour of wild elephants, their biology and their society comes from the research conducted in Amboseli.

These elephants have escaped large-scale losses from poaching and still move along traditional migration routes over an 8000 km2 ecosystem that joins elephant populations in West Kilimanjaro, the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo.

They are the best-known examples we have of what elephants do when left pretty much undisturbed by humans.

Elephant lives unfold slowly.

With a maximum lifespan of 70+ years, they mature at a similar pace to humans.

Successfully rearing calves relies on good decision-making in families, and co-operation to protect them. Old experienced females are important in both these things, especially now for the GBs who have 14 calves to look after.“Silly teenagers” who mock charge and twirl around the research car mature into young adults in their twenties preoccupied with mimicking their fully adult roles.

Older adults are calmer and more self-assured, and this assurance continues to grow with age.

Recent work from the north of Kenya has shown the dramatic effects poaching can have on the age structure of a population.

Poaching in Samburu has reduced male life expectancy to just 19 years old, and females to about 21 years.

Before the 2009 drought and in the absence of poaching or human-caused deaths, an Amboseli male could expect to live to 40 years old while females survived to over 50.

The knock-on effects of the kinds of losses seen in Samburu, and indeed in Amboseli during the drought, are enormous.

Amboseli is a vital “baseline population”; a rich dataset that provides an important comparative tool for scientists in Samburu and elsewhere.

Before 2009, most of the Amboseli elephant families were led by females in their 50s, 60s or 70s. In the devastating drought, all but two of these “old ladies” died.

Half of all the families lost their lead female, the matriarch – old friends of the Project who had been known for some 30-35 years, and some of these families lost as many as seven adult females, and numerous calves.

When we think about the future of wild elephants, we have to go beyond simple numbers. It matters not only how many survivors are left, but also how resilient those survivors are, and how their habits might change because their leaders are gone.

Elephant society is complex; individuals spend long periods learning from family and friends about the rules of friendships, dominance and reproduction.

Sometimes smart decision making involves a cooling trip to the swamp! The GB family delight in Golda's decision for a bath.Older elephants of both sexes remember things that benefit younger members like where to find water or good food, especially when times are tough. These animals are often the preferred targets for poachers, because older elephants have the biggest tusks.

By studying how Amboseli families recover from the 2009 drought, we can help predict reproductive and behavioural consequences for populations like Samburu where losses have been so extreme.

Some families in Samburu are now led by females who are only in their teens; losing experienced leaders might change where families go and which other elephants they spend time with. Summed across a population, this might mean that elephants “forget” certain safe areas and congregate in others, altering the ways they affect their habitat.

Keeping elephants safe and free is a long-term investment.

Here in Amboseli, ATE has been doing it for 40 years.

We are still learning and still investing in a future for Amboseli and the elephants here, and helping colleagues do the same for populations elsewhere.

--VF

For more information about our efforts to protect elephants, visit our campaign page.

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Cynthia Moss, IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
Director, International Environmental Agreements
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Regional Director, South Asia