A year in Amboseli: the highs and highs of an elephant researcher

Anghared's new daughter settles down to nap in the safest place an elephant calf can be.Time flies when you’re having fun, so they say. The past 12 months have certainly been amongst the fastest of my life. Getting to know the Amboseli elephants has been a great joy, and every day I’m thankful for the opportunity to work here.

I can’t forget though, that my research comes on the back of much suffering in Amboseli and that even two years on the ecosystem, the elephants and the people are still recovering from the 2009 drought.

I have been fortunate in my first 12 months here. Although the first rains failed, the second rains were good and I have joined the East African population in always watching and hoping for more. As a result of the good rains, the elephants are doing well. The baby boom has now brought us 63 new calves at the time of writing, with our field teams discovering new births every day. So far, all of those calves look strong and healthy.

This “double-catalyst” of new infants in families, and good and plentiful food, makes the elephants playful, curious and somewhat overdramatic in their response to outside stimuli: A fairly usual example being, “Oh! There’s an EGRET!!!” This is the cue for the entire family to run off 100m, new calves with legs in a fast forward blur of motion as they struggle to keep up. Then cue the elephant researchers: eyes roll, start the vehicle and reposition ourselves all over again to start work again. It’s funny the first couple of times and whilst I’m glad they’re feeling so up-beat in the heat of the Kenya’s dry season, I wish they were a little less skittish.

I’ve also had a couple of moments where big musth bulls come over just to say "hi." Now, just about everyone knows that I like elephants a great deal, and working alongside the families I spend a lot of my time absolutely surrounded by elephants, which is wonderful. However, I confess I still am a little wary of 6-tonnes of unfamiliar hormone-filled male elephant heading straight for our car…

So, yes, the good times are here, and it’s a joy to be with the elephants. The IFAW families are doing well; currently the AA family has four new calves. I spotted Agatha’s new calf on New Year’s Day, which was a great start to 2012 for me. These new calves have meant that Amelia and Agatha’s portions of the family have spent more time with Alison over the past few weeks, with a lot of interesting interactions.

One of the most anticipated births was for Anghared, Amelia’s 30-year-old daughter. She has had four calves to date, all of whom she lost during drought periods. In the 2009 drought, she lost two sons – a seven year old and a two-year old. Of course we hope for survival of all the elephant calves, and inevitably, that’s not possible. However, I am hoping “extra hard” for Anghared’s new daughter to make it through. She has an experienced matriarch, an experienced mother and young females to help allomother the calf, all of which are in her favour.

Eclipse's chubby new son leans on his cousin - the new troublemakers of the EA family.The EA family have welcomed new arrivals too; despite all our hopes, Eclipse didn’t have twins, but she did have one of the fattest elephants calves ever seen in Amboseli! He looks like he’s wearing a duvet and is a very robust little male. He spends a great deal of time playing with Eluai’s son, who is his cousin and almost the same age. I am sure they will cause a great deal of trouble in the family as they grow up! Eclipse’s eldest sister Elfrida has also had a daughter. The GB and JA families are a little bit behind the AAs and EAs – currently only Garamba and Garissa have had calves in the GBs, and the JAs haven’t had any births at all.

New visitors might well look on Amboseli as a kind of Eden – green swamps, a growing elephant population, and a local people, the Maasai, who retain a strong sense of cultural identity with their land and the wildlife. In some ways, I agree with them – the poachers are not here. Yet. But even as I watch these tiny calves take their stumbling first steps in the world, I wonder about their future.

I would love to believe that in 60 years’ time, when these elephant calves are old, Amboseli will still be a beautiful and functioning ecosystem. That will take a great deal of hard work, and those of us who care about Amboseli know that we cannot relax our guard. Alongside our colleagues at IFAW, and all the other NGOs working so hard in the ecosystem, we must keep fighting the larger problems: our top targets being of ivory trade, the more general wildlife trade and land-use that is incompatible with wildlife conservation.

Without the support of donors like you, none of this would happen. Please keep supporting us in this new year, so that we can keep the Amboseli elephants and the ecosystem safe from the threats of poaching and unsustainable development.


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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy