Rains have come to Amboseli – Elephants and People Rejoice!
Will Judith decide to re-join the family once there are a lot of new calves to project, if she can benefit from Jolene’s experience? Will Juninho stay with the YAs? All I can say is, stay tuned…
As a British citizen, it’s almost unpatriotic of me to be delighted about rain. But here in Kenya, it’s too precious and unpredictable to take for granted. I’m reminded of that precious nature every time I settle down with one my study families and, looking at my family notes, see how many individuals died as a result of the terrible 2009 drought. Of course, elephants were by no means the only sufferers and some of our elephant families did prove remarkably resistant. Still, there’s something profoundly sad about seeing a family with no small calves, all the females flat-breasted, or a young matriarch burdened with the heavy responsibility of leading and protecting the remnants of her family.
Some of my study families are particularly touching in these respects, and as I get to know them, I can only marvel at the hard times they’ve survived. The JA family lost two of their oldest females during the drought and six calves aged between 5 months and 6 years old, from a family of 25 individuals (not including their independent males). The loss of calves is always sad, but it’s the loss of old experienced females that really throws a family into disarray. Jill died in February 2009, aged around 45, and then less than two months later in April, the matriarch Joyce died, either poached or as a result of the drought, we could not be sure. Cynthia Moss estimated her to be over 60 years old – a wealth of experience for her family as they navigate the social and ecological challenges in their world.
We know these females are an important resource for families – and in fact you may have seen recent news coverage from an article by our collaborators, Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon, showing how older matriarchs are much better at discriminating the predation risk posed by male and female lions (more information here). Families with older matriarchs have calves at a faster rate, and more of them survive so an old experienced female can affect the reproductive success of every member of her family by her decisions about where to lead them and when.
Families often change their association patterns (who they spend time with, and how often) after the death of a matriarch. The JAs originally began to alter their association pattern after the death of their long-time matriarch, Jezebel in 1993 (who may have been Joyce’s older sister). After a while, Jill broke off from the family entirely taking her three daughters and dependent son with her to form the JA2s sub-family. Now we are seeing more changes since the loss of Jill and Joyce, matriarchs of the JA2s and JAs respectively. The JA2s currently consist of Jill’s surviving calves led by her eldest daughter Judith. At only 26 years old, Judith is young to be responsible for her siblings as well as her own calves; her eldest son Jamal is independent, but she still has a dependent son Juhudi who is five years old. Her sisters Japootu, Jordan and Josephine are 9, 11 and 21 years old respectively. The “JA originals” are now led by Jolene, the 35-year old daughter of Jezebel, with Jody (daughter of Joan) and Joyce’s daughter Jamila. Jackson, Joyce’s 11-year old son is in the process of becoming independent. Meanwhile, nine-year old Juninho is an orphan – her mother died in 2006 from unknown causes and she stayed with the JA family initially despite having no immediate relatives, but after the upheaval of Joyce’s death, she left and now associates with a small family we call the YAs, who are a bond group with the JAs.
The JAs story illustrates some of my favourite things about elephants – their flexibility in the face of change, and how each and every “rule” about being an elephant is heavily influenced by the individual’s personality. Scientists have long hesitated to use the word personality to describe their study subjects, but as any pet-owner knows or anyone who has watched animals for any length of time, they do have their own “style” which affects their decisions. I am already engaged with these characters and engrossed in the latest chapter of the JA story. Some of my work involves analysing the history of my study families, going right back to 1972, as well as collecting new data on what’s happening to them now. It’s always fascinating to see characters emerge as you get to animals, but the Amboseli story is even richer as it spans generations.
It’s often said that this kind of work is like a soap opera – there is always the next chapter to look out for. Will the JAs and the JA2s spend more time together in the future? Will Judith decide to re-join the family once there are a lot of new calves to project, if she can benefit from Jolene’s experience? Will Juninho stay with the YAs? All I can say is, stay tuned…