Amboseli Elephant Research: The Enigmatic EA Family

Elkana is a bit of an outsider in the family because she doesn’t have any living female relatives, and she lost her first calf in the 2009 drought. She spends time with the other family females, but I haven’t yet detected that she has a particular bond with any of them.

EA family member Eloise.

The EAs are one of the largest of my study families here in Amboseli. Currently, there are 32 family members, including some young males who haven’t yet left to become independent, and 15 females over ten years old.

Eloise is the matriarch and her crossed tusks make her distinctive, even from a distance. Having said that, she looks quite a lot like Ella, the matriarch of the EBs, and so I always have to double check. Eloise doesn’t have large loops out of the bottom of her ears like Ella, so it’s usually straightforward to check with binoculars. Unless she has her head in a clump of palm trees, which is one of Eloise’s favourite past-times. She is a remarkable elephant as she has successfully raised all her calves and, until 2004, all of those calves were male. This means that Eloise doesn’t have a family full of daughters, and she’s often to be found with her nieces Edney and Elin, and their calves. She became matriarch in 2006 when she was 42 years old, after the death of Estella, one of Amboseli’s oldest elephants who died while in her late sixties.

The rest of the EA family is Estella’s “matriline”, the term we use to describe a lineage of daughters and grand-daughters in elephant families. In complete contrast to Eloise, Estella had four daughters, seven grand-daughters and a great-granddaughter before she died, and all of these females are now of reproductive age. She had male descendants too, but her “girls” are the heart of the EA family: sisters Elfrida, Eclipse and Else, and their daughters Euphemia, Eltonin, Edith, and Eyadema. Estella’s second daughter, Elvira died in the 2009 drought, but Elvira’s daughters Eluai, Estefan and Entebbe are still in the family. Estella’s great-granddaughter, Edressa, rounds off the female tally for Estella’s descendants.

Elkana is a bit of an outsider in the family because she doesn’t have any living female relatives, and she lost her first calf in the 2009 drought. She spends time with the other family females, but I haven’t yet detected that she has a particular bond with any of them. I hope she will have a daughter soon so that she will always have companionship. She’s quite heavily pregnant now and if she’s one of the first to give birth in the family, she’ll be very popular, as all the other young females will be keen to babysit.

In some ways, the EAs are very easy to spot as they have some very distinctive members – Elfrida and Elkana are both one-tuskers, Elin has slimmer versions of Eloise’s crossed tusks, and Edney has elegant forward-curved tusks, but was born with nearly no hair on her tail. Other individuals sometimes get “lost in the mix” though; Else’s tusks are thick, short and straight, but otherwise she doesn’t have a lot of distinguishing marks; Estefan and Eyadema have confused me on a number of occasions, especially if there are other families around, or I haven’t yet spotted a characteristic family member to give me a hint.

The EAs are a “helpful” family in that they like to spend a lot of time in the palm woodlands of Ol Tukai Orok, in the centre of Amboseli National Park. It’s useful in that that’s where the Elephant Research Camp is, so they’re nice and close. It’s definitely NOT useful in that unless they’re in one of the larger glades, I can’t get good data on them, as there are too many individuals “out of sight” to make the data worthwhile.

Eclipse, one of the only set of twins in Amboseli, shows off her hugely pregnant state. The calf is her eight-year old son, Esposito.

For example, I might very well be able to see Eclipse and Estefan, but not know where Eluai is because she walked off behind a palm tree clump five minutes ago... In the palm woodlands, it’s hard to get a sense of who is spending time next to whom, or an idea of how the group is spread out. It’s also virtually impossible to see which females initiate group movements or respond to alarming events, which is vital leadership information for this IFAW-supported study.

It’s even more galling when I tell you the EAs are practically camp elephants now. I see them almost every day – either in the morning when I’m having breakfast, or at times like now, when working at the camp in the afternoon. It’s lovely having the rhythmic “swish-rrrrripppp” sound of elephants feeding, and I generally find it very relaxing. Except when I happen to be summarising my field data, and realise how little time I get to spend with the EA family when I can take data on them.

Having said this, I’m becoming fond of the EAs. I might struggle to spend data-collection time with them, but they’re a nice family and there’s something very special about looking up from my computer and seeing Elfrida wander past on her way to the little swamp next to the camp. The family has some remarkable history and has contributed some very valuable data to the long-term study of elephants here in Amboseli - Eloise’s reproductive success, Estella’s great age, and our only known set of twins.

Eclipse is one of these twins, who also happened to be the 100th and 101st calves born during a previous baby boom in Amboseli in 1979-80. Her brother Equinox used to compete fiercely for the right to suckle. And being a male, he had nature’s advantage of being bigger, so he usually won.

It might have gone badly for Eclipse then, but she was smart and had a strategy – she would play frantically with him until they were both worn out and would flop down to sleep. As soon as Equinox was sleeping, she’d get back up and rush over to her mother Estella for some uninterrupted suckling!

Now Eclipse is 31, and she has a son, a daughter and a grand-daughter who was born in 2010. After the drought in 2009, we weren’t expecting any births before late November of this year because elephants are pregnant for 22 months, and it takes time for females to regain body condition and begin cycling again after a drought. However, Eclipse is, as we speak, hugely pregnant and all the ATE staff are wondering if she’ll last that long. If she does, it surely MUST be twins…?! We’re certainly hoping so, as 31 years is a long time to wait for a second set to be born.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to sharing the next chapter in the EA history.


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