Treasure each new Amboseli elephant for the understanding they bring us

Eloise kicks up dust, feeding on juicy roots while her daughter Enugu stands guard over the other side of her tiny newborn daughter. Eidan stands to one side.Eloise has a brand new female calf. The birth itself isn’t a surprise as she’s been weaning her youngest son over the past few months, to his outraged (and noisy) protests. His disgust at the new arrival is palpable: while his older sister Enugu is glued to her mother’s side, taking care of the new arrival, Eidan trails behind. I can almost fancy he’s dragging his feet.

Male calves often have a hard time with the arrival of younger siblings. While a sister will be distracted from the stress of weaning by the delight of getting involved with caring for a new calf, males have no interest in babies.

Poor Eidan has had a particularly tough break; in his section of the EA family there aren’t even any other playmates to take his mind off things. His second cousin Éclair is besotted with her “auntying” duties to Elin’s year-old daughter.

This new arrival is the ninth calf Eloise has borne. Amazingly, every single one of those nine is still alive and well, from Eugene her firstborn son to this tiny little female. Even more remarkable is that it wasn’t until calf number seven in 2004 that Eloise had a daughter.

One day Eidan should grow up to look a lot like his big brother.

Although Eloise had so many sons, they never lacked for babysitters, because Eloise was one of four sisters. Although she is now the only survivor, both her nieces, Edney and Elin, stay close to her. Both have daughters of their own, so Enugu and this newest calf will likely eventually raise their own offspring in this tightly bound family.

The other part of the EA family is large, built around the four daughters of Estella, and their offspring. They have friendly and affectionate relationships with Eloise and her kin, but when times get a bit more difficult, the family usually splits into smaller ranging groups along these two matriarch lines.

Eloise’s success is almost unparalleled in the Amboseli population. Some females have difficulty conceiving, or are unlucky and always seem to have small vulnerable calves when droughts set in. She was lucky as a young mother and now is highly experienced; knowledge that Edney, Elin and her daughters are the beneficiaries of.

Eugene was born in 1978 when Eloise herself was 14, and a little older than the average first birth for an Amboseli female (12.8 years). But once she got started, there was no stopping her and since then she has had on average one calf every 4.26 years for the past 34 years.

What an exhausting thought.

The oldest of Eloise's calves, Eugene, is now a handsome independent bull. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Chiyo/AET).I love spending time with the Amboseli elephants, and I also (nerd that I am) love digging through our dataset. Sometimes those two things collide: when I added Eloise’s new calf to my family book (my “bible” for keeping track of births and deaths) I realised how doubly precious these calves are.

We treasure them for themselves; for the peaceful moments and the silly episodes that make us laugh, for the future that they promise.

We treasure them too for the information and understanding they bring us; every birth a slow-won data point in a dataset that has collected 2906 individuals over the past 40 years.

As elephant populations crash across Africa, the dataset becomes heartbreakingly important in understanding where we can save elephants, and where we cannot.

Nothing happens quickly with elephants, but we look forward to the next chapter in their history, and fight hard to let them live it out wild and free.

--VF

For information about our fight to protect these and other elephant populations around the world, check out our post on our interactive "Unveiling the Ivory Trade" materials here.

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
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