Like a Dream: A New and Enthusiastic Friend Comes to Amboseli
As our plane took off from Nairobi, I resisted the urge to pinch myself - I was finally going to see the famous Amboseli elephants, who roam below Mt Kilimanjaro. Even more amazingly, their lives are now my job.
Cynthia Moss has watched these animals since 1972, recording their triumphs and tragedies and capturing their lives. Her dedication and that of the Amboseli team has provided huge insights into elephant society, intelligence and ecology, although even this landmark study has yet to see an entire set of animals be born, reproduce and die of natural old age.
In 2009, Amboseli was indeed a place of tragedy: terrible droughts ravaged Kenya leaving wildlife, domestic livestock and people clinging to existence. Many thousands of animals died, including almost 400 of the 1,505 individual elephants known to Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP) and this was mainly a huge number of old, experienced females. 95% of the experienced matriarchs died – these are the leaders of the families, responsible for knowing where to find food and water, safety from threats, and how to manage social relationships over a 60+ year lifespan. How families cope with these losses, and the effect on elephant society as a whole, is the subject of my research.
The last rains have been relatively good in this part of Kenya and Amboseli is green and beautiful as the plane dips below the clouds. As we come in to land, I see an enormous group – more than 50 elephants – just beyond the airstrip. It feels like a welcoming committee. We’re met by Soila Sayialel, Deputy Project Director for field operations in the Project Land Rover.
Before we even get to camp we’re driving up to meet more elephants. In Congo, I stayed hidden on a platform, waiting for elephants to visit a forest clearing; here they accept the vehicle as we drive straight up to them. For me, it’s an incredibly special experience.
The next few days are a blur elephant-wise; I’m here for 10 days to meet the other researchers in the team, get my bearings a little and start to understand the project so we can begin to plan my study in more detail.
There are 1,200 elephants left in the Amboseli ecosystem, and they move in and out of the unfenced Park according to the season. Now, although the rains are over, there is plenty of food and water and they are still in large groups – anything from 70 to 100 animals. I’m much more used to seeing small groups of 2-3 animals join together to form aggregations of 10-30 elephants and these large Amboseli groups are astonishing.
Although it will take me many months to learn to identify all the individuals, some are immediately unforgettable. Tim is a prime example, an enormous male born in 1967 with truly beautiful tusks, he’s spectacular and unmistakable. One afternoon I look up (admittedly, a little tired and hot) from examining a set of ID photographs and suddenly it hits me that we’re surrounded by about 100 animals: grazing, playing, sleeping and socialising. They look well-fed and the atmosphere is contented; it’s hard to believe they’ve come through such a terrible time, but some families have no calves at all – something Cynthia has never seen before, despite previous droughts which always result in high mortality for infants under two years old.
It’s been very hard for the team, watching elephants struggle and losing so many of their old friends – individuals who they have watched since 1972. There is hope too though – many females are pregnant and we’re expecting a baby boom starting at the end of this year, and continuing into 2012. If these calves survive – and if the rains don’t fail again – I wonder what the world holds for these tiny elephants, who should live sixty years or more.