Spotlight Africa: Adoption dramas in Amboseli

Elfrida leading the EA family, her "twins" following herI’m typing quietly today, because as I write this in my tent in the research camp, part of the EA family is feeding about 20 metres away from me. They all look fat and healthy, like the rest of the Amboseli elephant population, thanks to our good rains. Right now Eluai, Eltonin and Estefan are pulling down a kind of creeper that grows amongst the palms, looping the long strands around like spaghetti before stuffing it into their mouths. Elephants haven’t fed here in a while, and Estefan in particular can’t seem to get it in her mouth quickly enough.

Our baby boom is continuing apace; we have now documented 181 births since the 12th of October 2011. We know there will be more births by the time it is over; some females are still heavily pregnant, and there are a number of young females still due to have their first calves. We have only recorded four deaths so far amongst our new arrivals, all of which happened soon after birth and were probably due to congenital defects.

Keeping track of all these young calves is proving hard work. Many of them are six months old or more and there is nothing they like better than to get into gangs for playtime. In the GB family, for instance, there are now 12 calves. Twelve! Playtime is more or less any time they’re not suckling or sleeping. Even when an exhausted calf collapses for a nap, within a few moments there is likely to be one or several “friends” clambering all over him or her. Sometimes the only way a calf can get some peace is to rest under its mother, who can deter these incessant disturbers.

Elfrida's calf and the adoptee, captioned "The "twins""These “playmate posses” roam freely and confidently, under the care of watchful (and sometimes worried-looking!) allomothers. If the family is spread out, feeding calves can end up a long way from their mothers and it isn’t uncommon to see a female being trailed by several small elephants, only one of which is hers. So I didn’t pay any attention the first time I saw Elfrida with two calves in tow, one of whom was only slightly bigger than the other. It gave the whole research team a start to realise Elfrida was suckling both calves. This happens sometimes when grandmothers suckle their daughters’ offspring in addition to their own, but this extra female calf definitely is not a grand-daughter.

Where did she come from?! We know the EAs well, and their births have been well documented. Baby elephants do not fall from the sky, although it has sometimes seemed that way in recent months! Elfrida’s daughter was born in November, and this new calf is a little smaller and younger, and is definitely not a family member. She has certainly been adopted by Elfrida – no calf of this age could survive without milk.

The adoption is much to the disgust of Elfrida’s own small calf, a female born last November. Female elephants can only produce a certain amount of milk, and over the years, the Amboseli research team has documented several calf deaths, either because older siblings continued to suckle after younger calves were born, or because mothers had very short calving intervals and the older siblings were unable to cope with being weaned. In these cases, who survived was about the mother’s preference of who suckled, or the determination of one calf or the other, but in all cases they were siblings. It is totally new for us to see an adoption generating this kind of conflict.

It’s not a certain outcome however; one set of twins has been successfully raised, and they are now 32 years old, both in their prime. Estella gave birth to Eclipse and Equinox in June 1980. Aptly enough, they were the 100th and 101st calves Cynthia documented during the baby boom of 1979-80. Even more poignantly for our current story, they also belong to the EA family. With Estella’s twins, Equinox as the male was dominant; he would not let his sister suckle and was very aggressive towards her whenever she tried. Elephants are smart though and little Eclipse had a strategy. She would play with her brother until he was exhausted, and they both lay down to nap. Once she was certain he was asleep, she would get up again and sneak over to her mother to drink her fill.

Elfrida taking care of her twin siblings, Equinox and Eclipse, when she was just ten years oldIt’s not clear at the moment which calf is dominant; certainly there is some aggression between the two but we need to stay longer with the family to get a better idea of how often it occurs and how Elfrida responds to it. The story may yet have a happy ending; Elfrida is 42 years old, and an experienced mother. She was a young female when her mother had the twins and she was very dedicated to helping Estella care for them. Even more encouragingly, these are times of plenty in Amboseli with abundant food. Certainly Elfrida herself is looking fat and healthy!

But still – where did this extra baby come from? The EAs use the central portion of Amboseli, which is one of the reasons we know them so well. When they’re in the Park, the Ol Tukai Orok palm woodlands form the centre of their range. The OB family use the same area, and recently we noticed Oprah had lost her calf, a female born in January. I had seen them the day before the calf disappeared, and all five babies in the family were looking healthy and happy. Could this mystery calf be Oprah’s? We know that kidnappings do occur from time to time, which we think is largely associated with dominance. But we’ve never seen a family keep a kidnap victim; usually they are relinquished or rescued very quickly. Elfrida is much older than any of the OB family females, and the EA family is larger. They would be dominant in any encounter.

For definite answers, we will probably have to resort to genetics; if this “extra” baby survives, we will get dung samples to analyse her DNA to work out which family she belongs to. It’s incredible that after four decades of study, elephants still surprise us. New things happen all the time – some of them very dramatic, others much less so. It certainly shows us how much we still have to learn about these intelligent, flexible animals.


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