Valentine’s in Amboseli with African elephants

Jean, Julius and Jolene; hope for a brighter few years for the JA familyToday (the moment of writing) is Valentine’s Day so it seems appropriate that I use this post to talk about my love of elephants, Certain elephants in particular.

In the two years I have studied them, the JA family have become some of my favourite elephants to spend time with. They have always been popular with the researchers in Amboseli and were led for years by Jezebel, one of our most beautiful matriarchs.

Jezebel died in 1993 from natural old age, and Joyce assumed the leadership. New calves were born, the family was growing and it seemed that a new era was beginning. It didn’t last however and the following years brought bad fortune as family members and independent males died or disappeared one after the other, often the victims of poaching and spearing. The JA home range is close to a number of Maasai bomas and so they have always been amongst the first elephant families to come into conflict with humans.

With 24 members in 2000, the JAs had lost nine individuals before 2009. The family “proper” became even smaller when, in 2003, Jill decided to leave with her four daughters, striking it out on her own to make the JA2 family. Then in 2009, Amboseli was struck by a terrible drought, and the two families lost another 8 members, including Jill and Joyce, their matriarchs.

By the time I came to know them in 2011, the JAs numbered just nine: Jolene, Jamila, Jody and their calves. They still retained friendly bonds with Jill’s daughters, but most often associated with the AA and YA families. They were a small family, easy to get to know, but my liking of them stems from more than that.

I have written before about the bonds between elephants, and how they treat each other as individuals. The strongest bonds exist between family members and friends. The JAs aren’t just family members: they are friends as well. They reinforce these bonds with lots of affectionate behaviour, rubbing against one another (“elephant hugs”), sleeping leaning against one another, a gentle touch from trunk or tail as another elephant moves past. They are sweet-natured individuals, attentive to each other, and I think that is one of the things I enjoy most about my time with them.

I study leadership in families – who makes important decisions about moving, resting and feeding. Who initiates, who responds, who ignores the signal. It’s all about understanding how elephants negotiate and resolve different needs from different family members, and then relating that to the reproductive success of a family.

Well, that’s the science. Getting to know families so well that it is possible to read this behaviour is my idea of fun. And although they are relaxed and trust us, the elephants aren’t completely indifferent to the car I use.

In the JA2 the calves snuggle up for some classic elephant affection.The JAs have earned a special place in my heart by their silly behaviour towards me, especially the younger family members. They often walk close to the car, and might throw an exaggerated eye roll my way, a playful swagger or a muffled trumpet that comes out as more of a snort. I rarely spend any time with them without them making me laugh.

I was so excited last month to come back to Amboseli, after time travelling and working in the UK. Spending some time with the JAs seemed like an excellent way to celebrate being back, but when I caught up with them, Jolene wasn’t there.

Elephant families don’t spend all of their time together – it’s what makes their bonds with each other and their decisions so flexible, and worth studying. But the JAs are incredibly close, and I had never, in two years, seen them apart from one another.

To make things worse, the last time I saw Jolene she had been looking thin. I had noticed her cheekbones protruding and the shadows of her ribs.

Of course deaths are inevitable in families, but the JAs had been through so much in recent years and I desperately hoped nothing had happened to Jolene. She had recently given birth and her new son Julius was fat and full of personality, right from the time he was born. Jolene’s daughter Jean and older son Jeremy were also absent, so I could only hope they were all together. Thinking along those lines I remembered that Jean’s pregnancy had looked quite advanced before I left, so perhaps she had given birth. I tried to relax.

Over the following days I kept working with other elephant families, but would often drive through the JAs favourite spots, trying to catch up with them. None of the other ATE team members had seen them either, so we concluded they must still be outside the Park. There was nothing to do but wait.

After almost two weeks, I found the JAs again. All together, feeding peacefully, nonchalantly minding their own business. Like a worried mother, I didn’t know whether to be relieved they were all fine, or mad that I had been so anxious! Everything seemed normal, but I noticed Jean was no longer pregnant. She must have had a stillbirth or a miscarriage, which would explain why Jolene would have stayed with her. It’s sad that Julius has to wait longer for a playmate, but at least the family was back together and safe.

I am sorry I missed the moment of their reunion. These are joyous and spectacular moments in elephant lives. Everyone joins in a chorus of greeting, heads raised high and temporal glands streaming, body rubbing and touching each other all over. I’m sure the JAs clearly showed delight in being together again. Every time I see a greeting I’m reminded that my, or any human, love for elephants is truly eclipsed by their devotion to each other.


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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Joseph Okori
Regional Director, Southern Africa and Program Director, Landscape Conservation
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