Amboseli Elephant Research: The Rules of Engagement

With plenty of food available at the moment, young elephants have lots of time to play. Here the young males of the DB family enter “rugby scrum mode”. Calves love climbing over each other, and it gets even more fun when there’s a whole team involved.

When I was doing my PhD research in Congo, my study elephants were very fearful of people. I have watched a group of more than forty animals panic and flee the forest clearing I was studying them from, just because a small calf tripped and stumbled into his mother’s back legs. It was a sign of how exposed they felt out in the open and that was unsurprising given that poachers in Congo target elephants at forest clearings, and these were their only encounters with people in the remote forests. In the past few months at Amboseli, I have become delightfully accustomed to elephants who are very relaxed with human observers, and indeed who sometimes choose to come and interact with us.

Elephants are “sensitive” animals – and can be surprisingly nervous for such large creatures. The Amboseli Elephant Project has always been as non-invasive as possible: we are careful about how we approach elephants and how we work around them. There is etiquette, and an understanding. This is not least because elephants are very opinionated about what constitutes acceptable behaviour from human observers: they will “head-shake” or “stand tall” at the car to express disapproval – for instance if they think we’re too close. And of course, they can charge. But it’s also because there’s no way we can do our work, documenting their lives and relationships and answering our research questions, without being able to watch them quietly and have them behave as though we weren’t there.

So, all in all, Amboseli elephants get on with their day, and we get on with ours watching them. It can be relaxing and peaceful, frustrating (usually when they’re deep in the palm woodlands and all one can see are elephant backsides), funny (they can be very silly), or – I’m being brutally honest – boring (elephants can spend a really long time doing not very much).

My study families are mostly very used to the car, and one of the reasons we selected these families is that we have good long-term data on them which means they’ve been watched for hundreds, if not thousands, of hours over the years.

All this being said, we don’t expect to alarm the study families to the point they take off, running to the horizon as though their lives depended on it. Unfortunately this was exactly what happened yesterday. As we drove out looking for the JAs, we saw a group of elephants about half a kilometre away just crossing the road. I was turning around to dig out a pen and get my datasheets when my colleague Norah Njiraini stepped on the brake and as I looked up all I could see was a cloud of dust that meant the elephants were running away.

Norah rolled her eyes – like I said, elephants can be silly, and if it’s not too anthropomorphic a word, overdramatic. We both grabbed binoculars, and confirmed it was JA and JA2 families. Well, actually, I saw a lot of elephant bottoms heading into bushes, but Norah confirmed the IDs, and gently pulled the Land Rover off the road to follow them. They had slowed down, but at the sound of the engine revving a little over rough ground they took off again and disappeared. Norah and I looked at each other and decided to call it a day with that family.

One might just call it an annoying day and tut. But we were worried; elephants run when they’re scared and the only thing Amboseli elephants have to be scared of are poachers. Well-armed, well-organised gangs can easily shoot elephants from vehicles. We started to think about when and where we’d last seen the JAs, and where they might have been in the meantime. We hadn’t even had a chance to count them properly and check everyone was there. Once back at camp, I emailed our colleagues working on anti-poaching in the areas outside the Park and put the word out. There was nothing else to do but wait.

In the end, it worked out fine. This time... Word came back from our colleagues that they hadn’t had any poaching reports from their game scouts either in Kenya or over the border in Tanzania. And then we found the JAs again: all together and totally relaxed, as if the previous day had never happened. Whilst I’m relieved, it reminds me of the worry we all work under: in just the few months I’ve worked here, game scouts have found carcasses of poached elephants, and we have documented missing females and new orphans in our known families.

When the games run out with other elephants, they sometimes try to interact with us instead. This young male tried to get us to play with him. I regretfully declined…

As long as the price of ivory remains so high and demand remains open, elephants remain at risk. I was musing on this as we drove away from JAs and located the next family; the DBs were with some of the VA3s and a young male, aged perhaps twelve years old. He was sparring with Damian, a ten year old male from the DB family and when Damian had had enough, this male wandered up to the car and proceeded to spend ten minutes trying to entice us to play – with his head high and an exaggerated rolling walk he twirled in front of us, picked up some handy zebra bones and tossed them towards us, then softly trumpeted and stood with ears spread, looking as though he expected us to play tag. I abandoned all professional detachment and burst out laughing, before telling him to go and find someone his own size to mess about with.

Like I said, elephants can be very silly, but that’s what makes them so much fun.

-- VF

This study of social disruption amongst the Amboseli elephants is supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. For more information about the work of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, and more images from Vicki, please click HERE.

Comments: 5

6 years ago

[...] previous blogs, I’ve written about learning to identify the Amboseli elephant families and the individuals in thos.... By spending time watching elephants, you learn their physical “marks” or characteristics that [...]

6 years ago

A wonderful read to be able to experience your experience about these animals via your words and pictures. Thank you so much. Alison

6 years ago

Thank you, Vicki, for sharing your experiences. To be able to read these reports and learn more and more about these wonderful animals is a real pleasure. I look forward to following all your blogs throughout your research.

6 years ago

Thank you Vicki! This was a wonderfully interesting article, and so timely for me.

On Mother's Day my daughter took me to the movie 'Born To Be Wild 3D', and it was a remarkable movie about raising baby elephants and orangutans to be returned to the wild, and it was such a powerful movie that my eyes filled up with tears a few times. I hope the day comes that people lose all interest in ivory and also obliterating our precious rain forests.

This was so lovely, and I have to say what a terrific PhD choice! My bucket list is growing. :o)

6 years ago

What a nice excerpt from an experience I may never be fortunate enough to have. Thank you for sharing. Too bad playing with the young male might have been dangerous for you (I assume), because that would have been an experience of a lifetime (if all went well).

Elephants have always been a beautiful creature that I have the utmost respect for. It makes me sick that they are still hunted, legally or illegally.

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