Spotlight Kenya: tales of trauma and recovery for Amboseli elephants

Jalila and her daughter.Usually I try to restrict my blog to writing stories about my study families; these are the elephants that I know well as I witnessed their social and reproductive changes following the loss of family leaders during the 2009 drought.

But there are 58 elephant families in Amboseli, each creating their own history of success and failure, survival and death, triumph and trauma. These histories build into the long-term dataset – four decades of tracking families and their lives.

They provide remarkable stories of survival against the odds, many of which have been captured in the films that Cynthia Moss and the Amboseli team have made over the years: Ely, Echo’s son born unable to straighten his legs or stand, his undaunted mother protecting him for days without food or water, until finally his ligaments loosened enough and he was able to stagger to his feet.

Much later, Ely would become “infamous” in the project again – he disappeared a few years after becoming independent and was assumed dead, only to rock up nine years later; tall, handsome and totally bemused by the hysterical joy he caused amongst the field team.

Joy that quickly turned to the realisation that we cannot reliably estimate the fate of any male until he’s been missing for at least a decade, and perhaps not even then.

I spent most of last month away from Amboseli, and it’s been a thrill to return to find the lake full and the vegetation so tall and lush that I am edging the Land Rover through blindly, unable to see holes, logs or other lurking dangers.

The younger calves are barely visible over the tops of the grasses in some areas. Cynthia and I grabbed a morning together for the first time in ages: I was looking for the GBs (regular readers will remember that this is no easy task) but inevitably we got sidetracked with other groups.

Elephants in the wet season can go anywhere; I spent a long morning with Cynthia getting very confused and surprised where particular elephants were, and whom they were with. After five hours we decided it was time to head back.

Jasiri with Jemima and older sister Julep.I took a route through the palm woodlands of Ol Tukai Orok, a favoured hang out of the GBs, in a last-ditch hope of locating them so I could go back and work with them in the afternoon. Instead, we found another 30 elephants, between us and our much-longed-for lunch.

Immediately we noticed two things – these were not usual Ol Tukai Orok visitors, and there was at least one brand new calf, no more than a day old and still staggering in the drunken fashion of a newborn. No quick “oh it’s so-and-so” for us, but I soon recognised Hagenia of the HB family when she came out from behind a palm. We spent several minutes driving around confirming the ID of the other females, checking on the calves, and recording three new births

Cynthia had spotted a distinctive-looking female resting under a tree in a small group but we couldn’t get close because of the palm clumps. Cynthia told me she had  a “chisel tusk” – short, thick and broken on an angle.

After a while the elephants moved off and eventually we negotiated a path to follow them. A younger female had a beautiful square notch and “finger” (small flap of skin) in her right ear, but I couldn’t place her at all.

Her left ear had a beautiful double notch that I was sure I recognised but honestly I was struggling. It’s hard to remember all of the 1600 elephants, and although we carry ID books, unless you know where to start looking, you can easily miss the photo that confirms an ID.

As the little group moved out from the shade, “Chisel-tusk” appeared from the palms and I realised it was Jacinta of the JB family.  The JBs have had a terrible few months; in December their matriarch Jemima was found dead, maybe shot or poisoned.

We were all devastated because she was a beautiful female and the mother of the first albino calf we had ever documented in Amboseli. Jemima’s calf was missing, and her eldest daughter Jalila and her son were also gone. Over the next few months, we occasionally saw Jacinta and Jasmine with their calves, but no sign of the others.

In late March, almost exactly three months to the day Jemima was killed, I found an orphan elephant.

It’s a shocking experience. Baby elephants are usually the centre of an adoring and protective family, and there is something indescribably wrong and sad seeing them all alone in the world. I could hardly believe it when I saw white tail hair and pale skin and recognised that this was Jemima’s son.

We called KWS and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and rescued the calf. I named him Jasiri, which means “brave one” in Kiswahili, because I couldn’t believe a year-old calf could make it without his mother for three months.

Jasiri’s road to recovery will be long – he collapsed several times and went into comas, recovering only with the aid of dextrose drips. His physical condition is improving, but the psychological scars of his experience will take longer to heal.

The expert care of DSWT is his best chance that he has to one day walk in the wild again, as a Tsavo elephant.

We had thought this was a good enough outcome from the JB tragedy. I had been trying to follow the JBs when they were around, thinking to include them in the social disruption study, but with only two females over 10 who visited erratically, I decided it was probably not going to work out. It was good to see Jacinta though, and I was relieved to note that Jacqueline, her seven year old daughter was back again after having gone missing for a while.

“Double-notch-left” joined Jacinta and Jasmine, and I remembered where I had seen that ear before: Jalila. I almost didn’t dare say anything to Cynthia, not wanting to get anyone else’s hopes up.

At the beginning of every year I perform the sad task of removing photos of dead individuals from the ID books, so I had to get back to camp to check Jalila’s ID picture. I took photos of the female, and her calf, and we left the elephants contentedly munching.

Before I could start munching my own lunch, I had to be sure. I keep ID photos on my computer, filed by family so it was quick enough to find Jalila’s file, and confirm. Yes, it was her.

It had taken her almost four months to find the rest of the family, but she had made it. Jemima’s legacy lives on in Amboseli after all, and another chapter is added to the JB history and the Amboseli Elephant Research Project dataset.

--VF

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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