Spotlight Kenya: The GB family tests and teaches young elephant researchers

Geeta's female calf, our 100th recorded calf in the Amboseli baby boom.Elephants are capricious.

In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that after 40 years, the Amboseli elephants might well have been studying the researchers while we’ve been studying them. It’s the only explanation for how they “Know”: Know what we want them to do, what we’ve been waiting three hours for them to do. 

Eventually they might do it. Recently, this has often been in really useful places; the middle of the swamp, or in the palm woodlands, where we can’t see very well. Of course, it’s just our imaginations, but sometimes it feels as if they’re playing games with us.

Take the GBs. Early in the IFAW-supported Social Disruption Study, the GBs were one of my most accessible, fun and (I admit it, I like an easy ride with my data collection) favourite families. Unlike the AA or JA families, the GBs do leave the Park for periods, and it’s always nice to spot them when they come back, striding confidently across the plain with feisty Garba Tula leading and sweet Georgia in the rear.

One-tusked matriarch Golda is usually somewhere in the middle, flanked by the young family females while the gaggle of young males that haven’t yet gone independent trail behind and to the sides. Proclaiming bravado, but nonetheless, well within a safe distance.

Now that Gail has brought her portion of the family back to re-join the rest of the GBs permanently, this is a large family – thirty-two members at the end of December 2011. Through December and January, I had spotted them in the large aggregations of elephants that were using the Acacia tortilis woodlands in the South-East portion of Amboseli. I was thrilled that the 100th calf born in our Baby Boom was born to one of my study families; Golda’s younger sister Geeta had the 100th calf, a daughter, in January. Feisty Garba Tula and first-time mother Genisis also had sons that month.

And then they disappeared.

I wasn’t worried – the unusual rain we had in February due to the Malagasy cyclones encouraged many elephant families to leave the Park. Freed from their ties to the permanent water inside Amboseli, elephants are able to range further in search of tastier and more nutritious forage in the wider ecosystem. Immediately after the rains, almost no elephants were left inside the Park boundaries, which is normal for the start of the wet season.

Many families quickly returned to the Park once they realised that these rains didn’t in fact signal the onset of our long rains. The GBs weren’t among them.

Still, I waited. I’m not particularly patient on many levels, and one of the oddest things for me has been going from my PhD, where every second of data counted, to working here on a study that’s all about medium- and long-term changes and dynamics in families. If you don’t see them today, then there’s always tomorrow. Or perhaps next week. It’s all fine; there’s no hurry with these elephants.

Well, it would be fine, except for the fact that I was impatient to spend time with them again. I love the GB family – love sitting with them while they move around the Land Rover, and love getting to know the personalities of those females and their calves. With such a large family, it’s very satisfying rapidly filling datasheets, knowing who is where. More than anything, I wanted to know who had had their calves, and how it was affecting the family dynamics.

Other members of the ATE team reported that the GBs were back two weeks ago. Fabulous, I thought. My colleagues had documented new calves, and I was keen to get out and see them. Apparently, however, the GBs had other ideas.

I knew the zone of the Park they were using, so I began by putting a lot of effort into driving around that area. I saw nearly every other family using that side of the Park, but not the GBs. Then, taking a colleague from the ecosystem out one afternoon, I found them, coming out of the swamp with around 150 other elephants.

Part of the GB family in their "make-up" - Garissa, Gabby, Galileo and Galana wear red mud, showing they've been spending time to the South-East of the Park.In such a large moving group, and with fading light, I couldn’t do much with them. In fact, I was very confused since all the calves were having a fantastic race in the middle of the family, and I couldn’t work out how many there were. I thought I saw Golda with a calf following her, but he quickly disappeared back into the melee of small elephants, and I couldn’t be sure.

Another week passed. I kept looking for the GBs in these big groups, which take forever to work through. Norah, my colleague, and I were getting up earlier and earlier, trying to get to the elephants in that magic time before they really wake up and get on the move, when it’s possible to see who is where, and to observe the process of negotiation as the families decide where to go that day.

One morning we found them – but the group was already on the move and we could barely count who was there, let alone see any behaviour that we needed for the study. They crossed quickly into the swamp, and Norah and I decided to use one of our “secret ways” around the water ways in the swamp, to get ahead of them. The GBs usually cross a small river, and then turn north to a drier area where they feed, dust and rest for several hours. It’s pretty rough going to get to this place in the Land Rover, but we decided to go for it.

We got to the area ahead of the main group, and could see the GBs turning towards us. I decided it was the perfect time for tea and some breakfast before they reached us, and we settled down to wait. After about ten minutes, I noticed the GBs were changing direction again, heading west. There was clearly some negotiation going on within the family and I peered through binoculars, willing Georgia (who was heading north) to persuade the rest of them. It looked like she would, but then a ruckus broke out between two other families, and the GBs, deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, headed away from the drama.  West.

Abandoning the GBs to their own devices, we spent a lovely morning with the JA family, who were being very brave and hanging out with the large and dominant QB family.

Another three days passed, and after a very long, hot dusty morning spent searching, I returned to camp to find the GBs feeding in the small swamp just north of the kitchen. Usually, elephants using this area move through the camp in the course of an afternoon so I decided to wait for them to come out of the thickest part of the vegetation. I had some lunch and got on with some other work. Around 3pm I was rewarded – Golda appeared, with about half the family following her.

I jumped straight into the Land Rover, and drove up to them, thrilled to see them again properly. I started by checking for new calves. I ticked off everyone I could see on the census list. First Golda herself – yes she definitely has had a new male calf – then Georgia, Geeta, GarbaTulla, G-Mail, their calves… But wait. There was a female I didn’t recognise. Feeling foolish (I have been studying these elephants for more than a year now, after all) I flipped through the ID photos for the family. Nope. Then I double checked the family list – of course the rest of the family was out of sight behind some palms, but by looking at the list, I could see that every other female I would know on sight: Galana has a large loop out of right ear; Goodness has thick tusks that point together; Garissa has thick tusks, and the right one is broken halfway up.

This female is a GB enigma. She has been coming and going with the family ever since I started. She’s young, and not very distinctive, and when she’s there she’s not at all an outsider; in fact, she’s right in the thick of things and treated as a family member. It’s often hard to spot her until we reach the end of the census, and realise we have an extra elephant somewhere, and she’s hard to photograph because she’s usually right in the middle of the group.

It’s possible that she is indeed a member of the family, and perhaps we thought she’d died in the 2009 drought. For females without surviving close female relatives, it isn’t unusual for them to become peripheral, or even to join another family with whom they are friendly. However, the only female who fits her age group has sisters in the family, and we don’t see her with any other family when she’s not with the GBs. She’s a real mystery.

Mystery or not, she has a new female calf, which might mean she will stay much closer to the GB family. If I can get good pictures of the vein patterns in her ears, I might even be able to match it back to old photographs. The vein patterns in an elephants’ ear are like a fingerprint, and don’t change over their life, unlike holes and rips which can tear further. Of course, this means being able to get to her, with the sun shining across her ear, and with no other elephant blocking the view or the light.

So, the upshot is, I’m still waiting. The elephants soon moved off into the palms where I couldn’t follow, and I was forced to accept I’ll have to wait another day. Back in my tent, with yet another cup of tea at hand, I realised the elephants are teaching me patience. It’s a valuable life skill, and I’m doing my best to learn the lesson.

-- VF

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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
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