When naming baby elephant calves in Amboseli, having a theme helps

Our new arrivals pose naming challenges.Well, the baby boom is finally coming to an end.

Although some females are still pregnant and will give birth in the coming months, calves born after the start of October will not be considered “baby boomers”.

We have had 223 births in the past year, by far the largest cohort of calves recorded since the study began in 1972.

Some families have huge numbers of calves – 13 or 14 in the OA, PA and GB families. Of course, we correct the absolute number of calves by the number of females available to give birth, but still: Having 10 or more baby elephants running around is certainly making the families more dynamic!

Apart from keeping track of all these calves, and the inevitable mortality that must occur over the coming months and years, a big challenge for us is to work out how to name them all when they are old enough.

Here’s why.

When we began recording the elephants in 1972 we had no idea that we would reach the total 58 families that we have today.

Cynthia Moss and Harvey Croze began by photographing individuals, working out the families and assigning them letters of the alphabet – A, B, C and so on.

Beautiful Marjorie is one of the oldest of our named calves, born in 1987.

Each individual in a family group was given names starting with the family letter; the A family had Annabel, Alyce, Amy, Alison, Agatha, Amelia…. Before long the 27th family was identified, and the family code letters were doubled up, making AA, AB, BA, BB.

In the early days, elephants were named pretty much by whim.

Some of them were given the names of gods and goddesses – Isis, Athena, Dionysus, or philosophers – Aristotle, Plato. Other names were more descriptive, especially for the bulls that were already independent; Long Left, Handsome and Sleepy (because Cynthia found him flat out snoozing one day).

Other names came about because of books the research team were reading; Remedios after a character in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, or Bronowsky after “The Jewel in the Crown”.

Later on, as the population grew, the team turned to Baby Name books.

These well-thumbed volumes still litter the bookcases in our offices and camp.

From 1987 however, Cynthia hit on a new strategy, and each year now has a theme for names.

These annual themes really help us keep track of similar-aged elephants, which is especially important for new team members who have to come in and learn who is who.

Wonderful Vronsky, named for a character in the novel Anna KareninaIn the last two decades, there have been many themes; places, rivers, cities and mountains in Africa; Arabic, Indian, Norwegian, Maasai and biblical; plants of Amboseli; stars and planets; musicians, actors and actresses, footballers; computers, the internet; sweets and drinks.

Each name still has to start with the same letter as the family code, so sometimes we have to get creative with spelling.

The QB family are always a nightmare; for the 2007 sweets theme we went with “Qaramel” and “QitQat” (for non-British readers, KitKats are chocolate-coated wafer biscuits. Yum).

Thinking up a theme and the associated names is usually a lot of fun.

Like humans, elephants’ early years are the most dangerous in terms of their survival.

We don’t name elephants until the year they turn 4 years old, when they have made it through the most dangerous period and we can be fairly sure they will survive.  

What will these calves be named?We also never repeat names; not only because our long-term data depends on each individual having a unique identity in the records, but also because we know them as individuals.

There could never be another Echo, or another Barbara.

We don’t name all the elephants ourselves however.

Since 1988, we have also operated a naming programme, where donors can pay to name a calf.

It is different from other adoption programmes, because each calf is named exclusively by a donor, and that name remains fixed forever.

Donors receive photographs of the calf and their family and a history of the family. When important events happen to “their” elephant, we write and update donors.

The rules for donor naming are simple; the letter has to match the family code, but otherwise they don’t have to conform to a theme.

People often choose names in honour of someone special in their life.

We do encourage people to choose alternative names if their name has already been used, or we come to a compromise; for example we have “Ruth II” and “Charlie GC” to distinguish these calves from the original Ruth and Charlie.

Despite our donor programme, we still need a theme for each year.

Maybe you can help; use the comments below to suggest a theme for us?

It has to be something that has names available in every letter of the alphabet.

We won’t name these calves until 2016, but it would be good to know we have a good theme selected already for all these 223 babies!


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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
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Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
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Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
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