Miss France 2012, Delphine Wespiser in Kenya on the threats facing the elephants of Amboseli

Delphine Waller, Miss France 2012, and Céline Sissler Bienvenu, Director of IFAW France and Francophone Africa, admire the view of Amboseli Park from a hill where IFAW and Kenya Wildlife Service information signs have been put up.  We set out this morning at 7 a.m. It’s important to leave early for Amboseli because the animals are generally out and about in the early morning and at sunset when temperatures are dropping. Luckily for us, they didn’t leave us waiting this morning! Around 7:30 a.m., just before the IFAW team and I reached the Amboseli Trust for Elephants camp, a female elephant and her calves suddenly emerged from behind the trees. We stopped and took our time to admire them, our first encounter of the day. What better place to feed: the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, supported by IFAW, is responsible for the longest running research project ever conducted with elephants. It was started under the direction of Cynthia Moss and is now in its 40th year.

This is where we ran into Vicki Fishlock, one of Cynthia Moss’s researchers. Vicki welcomed us with a warm smile that didn’t leave her face all morning. Originally from the United Kingdom, Vicki switched back and forth between English and French, telling me all about the behavior of the elephants. Before we knew it, we were in her car and heading out into the bush. We soon got off the beaten track to meet up with Vicki’s colleagues—the elephants of Amboseli. She seemed to know every one of them by name, which makes perfectly good sense: her job is to identify each elephant and family of elephants in the park. There are several ways to recognize an elephant: the shape of the ears, the trunk, or the tusks. Everything is recorded in a field journal and added to a crate full of pictures of elephants, ears, and trunks!

We take two cars, and Vicki wonders how the elephants are going to react when they see a second car. Unsurprisingly, the elephants recognize Vicki and her car as well as everyone from her research team. We, on the other hand, are nothing but strangers to them. The Amboseli elephants take us in anyway, almost as if they knew why we were there and that we want to help them. They went from one side of the car to the other, walking ahead of us, behind, to the right, the left, just as if we were part of their herd! Even so, we’re far from understanding everything that’s going on in this herd: elephants communicate with each other by infrasound—sounds that the human ear can’t hear!

From the car, Vickirevealed all of the elephants’ secrets: that one over there is the ugly duckling of the family, this one here is busy trying to find a sweetheart so we shouldn’t disturb him, and that one is the herd’s matriarch despite the fact that she is trailing behind everyone else. If she stops, the whole herd will stop. We all notice that one female elephant is limping; Vicki immediately makes note of it in her field journal.

We’re lucky to see several young elephants, including calves that are barely a few months old! This is encouraging because in 2009 a terrible drought hit Amboseli, resulting in the death of several baby elephants when their mothers weren’t able to feed them enough. After this disaster, life suddenly reemerged, explained Vicki, as all the elephants gave birth at the same time. It was Amboseli’s very own baby boom!

All this seems so surreal considering that just yesterday Vicki and her team were struggling to save a young, frightened elephant all alone beside the carcass of her mother, shot dead by poachers. The team took her in, calmed her down, and brought her to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphanage in Nairobi that I’ll be visiting tomorrow. Unfortunately, as Vicki explained, this elephant is lost to Amboseli’s ecosystem. If she recovers, Kwanza will be reintroduced in Tsavo Park. Her sister was shot dead at the same time as her mother and her nephew is still missing. And sadly, this is how a family of elephants in Amboseli is wiped out. It happens fast. Very fast. Too fast. The people I talk to around here are worried that their children will never get to see an elephant.

Poaching is a serious threat to the survival of elephants across the continent. Today, I really began to understand the gravity of the situation: the number of deaths from poaching is growing and this is only compounded by the losses caused by natural disasters such as the drought in 2009. What’s going to happen to the elephants of Amboseli if the current levels of poaching continue unabated during the next drought? If the elephants of Amboseli have to face a drought, habitat destruction, and poachers at the same time, there is little chance they’ll survive. We are powerless against drought; it’s the law of nature. On the other hand, we can fight against poaching. We can raise our voices. We can and must act! Each one of us can join the IFAW elephant walk (www.ifaw.org). Each of us can make a donation, however small, for researchers like Vicki to continue their work. More importantly, the presence of researchers in Amboseli deters potential poachers. Finally, we can and must call on our legislators to publicly take a stand for a total ban on the sale of ivory as soon as possible.

If there’s one thing I’ll remember from today, it’s how elephants have a way of life, strong emotional bonds, and social interactions close to those of humans. When I think of this majestic species perishing one day, I can’t help but think that their extinction would at the same time take something away from our humanity.

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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