Amboseli Elephant Families: Flexibility Brings Success for the GBs

Matriarch Golda provides stability and leadership in the GB family today

In attempting a detailed introduction of the elephant families in this International Fund for Animal Welfare-supported study, I should really “begin at the beginning” and go in alphabetical order. However, elephants can be erratic and unpredictable in their behaviour and I’m starting to believe that elephant researchers can too. So I’m starting with the GBs instead – and I hope my boundless enthusiasm for them will provide a good enough excuse.

Cynthia Moss first identified the GB family in 1975. They were distinctive – with two tuskless females and a one-tusker, they should have been unique. But elephants are not known for being straightforward, and in fact there were two Amboseli families with these characteristics, both numbering 12 individuals. It took Cynthia a few sightings to clearly distinguish the BB and GB families. Today, both these families form part of my study population, and they’re now very different in size and composition. Sadly all those big tuskless females have died, so I know them only from photographs and the reminiscing of my ATE colleagues.

The GBs were not what we would consider “central” elephants in the early days – attested to by the fact it took Cynthia three years to spot them. Amboseli is not a large park, but the ecosystem spans 8,000 sq km, and in fact Cynthia suspected the GBs came into the Park having lost their former range to agricultural developments to the East of the Park. This “immigrant” status does affect their relationships with other families – they have never been a dominant family and are still easily displaced by other elephant families.

The lovely Gloria, who originally brought the GB family to Amboseli. Cynthia Moss took this photo in 1977

They may not be dominant, but the GBs certainly are tenacious; they persevered with their new home range and never left for long, so that now they’re as central as any family. It was a smart move on the part of Gloria, the tuskless matriarch, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s the family did very well, growing steadily in number despite some challenging drought years.

In 2000, after at least 26 years as leader, Gloria died. Examining her teeth, the ATE team discovered she was at least fifty years old and her teeth were worn down to a tiny area. She died naturally of old age – which is in itself quite an achievement for an elephant whose life has spanned such a period of human population growth, wildlife conflict and poaching.

After Gloria died, Geraldine as the next oldest female took over as matriarch. Individual personalities and leadership styles are very important to elephants because a good matriarch must balance the needs of her family. One-tusked Grace clearly didn’t agree with Geraldine’s leadership style, and eventually she left with her daughters to form her own family who became known as the GB2s. Grace had five surviving daughters and managed to build herself a successful family. The original GBs also did well under Geraldine’s leadership.

The good times were not to last however for either family. In 2007 Geraldine died of natural old age, and in 2008 Grace also died. Then in 2009 Gwen, Grace’s eldest daughter disappeared, a suspected victim of poachers at the same time the Amboseli elephants experienced the worst drought in living memory. In total, the two families combined lost 16 of their 39 members. The new matriarchs were both much younger than the females they replaced – Golda at 35 years old became matriarch of the GBs, and Gail took on the leadership of the GB2s when she was just 24.

Now, two years after the drought the families have stabilised. Gail brings her family to join the GBs so often that if I were beginning a study of them now and had none of the background history I would consider them as one family. Most of the females are pregnant, and we wait to see whether the births of these new calves will cement the bonds between the two families, or serve to split them apart. I expect, and hope for the former. The families currently look like this;

The Amboseli GB elephant family tree.

Gentle Georgia is one of the sweetest characters in the family

The GBs are a wonderful study family – with young males present there’s usually something happening, and their favourite place is also one of my favourite parts of the Park. All the females have different characters that emerge in their interactions with each other – GarbaTulla is feisty and often initiates the family to move, Georgia is sweet and gentle, Golda is patient and supportive of the family, while Gail is affectionate and attentive.

More than this, they’re special to me because they exemplify the flexibility and sheer survival instincts of elephants. Thinking of all they’ve overcome gives me hope that my two-year-old god-daughter will grow up in a world where elephants still range freely.

-- VF

For a complete family history of the GBs, please click here.

For more information on the International Fund for Animal Welfare effort to save elephants around the world, visit

Comments: 1

6 years ago

[...] region, one where culling will remain a remnant of the past.  In Kenya, IFAW is working with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP) to understand the effects of drought on the social structure of the Amboseli [...]

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