Getting to Grips With a New Phase in Elephant Research

Well, I’ve been here almost two months now and the study is taking shape.

EB family has youngsters of all sizes...

In my last blog, I wrote about starting in Amboseli, but it was very much the abridged version in terms of our planning! I came to Kenya with Phyllis Lee, who is based in the UK but who has worked at Amboseli since 1982 and who supervised my PhD.

Phyllis, Cynthia and I made some strategic decisions up front, especially for choosing the study families. Since Phyllis returned to the UK, we’ve been refining our ideas and, thanks to the wonders of email, we can keep discussing ideas as we have new brainwaves. It isn’t easy working out how to capture data on social decisions and leadership, as these can be both complex and subtle. I think we have a good formula though and I’m so fortunate to be able to draw on the huge field experience in the ATE team to supplement my own know-how.

Most of my time with the elephants, so far, has been devoted to learning who is who. It’s no mean feat with more than 1200 individuals in 66 families. It’s not just my study families I have to learn (and those alone total some 230 elephants!) but all the independent males and other families that they might associate with from the population.

Our field assistants Norah Njiraini and Katito Sayialel are exceptional in their skill, and I hope one day I’ll be half as good. Some individuals I do know already, and luckily for me, some of my study families are very distinctive individuals. One morning I went into the office and positioned my arms in mimicry of the very asymmetrical tusks of a female I’d just seen: “Angelina!” came the chorused reply. I won’t forget her now (and I won’t be allowed to!).

Other individuals are memorable because of the way you meet them. For instance, last week we were driving by a swamp and I saw a large male in musth (the annual sexually active period of adult male elephants). I was sure I’d never seen him before as he had a particularly stocky build and I said “wow, he looks butch”.  As it turns out, it was Butch. When Norah told me, I thought she was just teasing – I had to look him up in our ID files before I believed her!  I think that was a particularly fortuitous piece of naming given that he was born in 1979 and probably didn’t look at all butch when he was christened…

I think it’s harder to learn a known population, rather than to identify individuals from scratch, since you’re effectively playing “catch up”. Doing my PhD research I had to make sketches of individuals’ ears, tusks and tails as I was always observing the forest elephants from 200-250m away. Doing those sketches helped fix individuals in my mind, aided by the fact that I saw only a few animals at a time. Here, I am working from beautiful ID photos, with elephants that are right next to the car (so generally I can drive around and look at the other ear if I need to!). Still, my brain seems to seize up after about 100 individuals in a day, especially since that point in the day seems to coincide with the temperature hitting about 320C (about 90 F) degrees...

To help me get my eye back in, especially for estimating the ages of individuals, I spent time with Norah and some students from the Africa Wildlife Foundation who had come for a 10-day training course here in Amboseli. The Amboseli project has trained students from all over Africa, as well as researchers from Sri Lanka. It is probably the best place in the world to learn to age elephants, since all the calves born since 1975 have been recorded within a month or so of their birth, and so we have a large population of known-age individuals. There are always some who will fool you though – one boy in the PA family is so enormous I couldn’t believe he was only 13 years old!

As I sit writing this in my tent, I can hear rumbles from the EA family who are feeding in the palm swamp where our camp is situated. Norah and I will go back out this afternoon to find another of the families, and then settle down with them to see what they’re up to for a few hours. And, right on cue, just as I’m wondering how to sign off this blog entry, I look up and there’s a female elephant grazing 30m away. Now, if only I hadn’t left the ID books in the Land Rover, I might be able to work out who she is…

-- VF

For more information about The Amboseli Trust for Elephants visit their website at

For more information about the International Fund for Animal Welfare effort to save animals in crisis around the world, visit

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