Lesson from tragedy: Amboseli elephants struggle with loss of matriarchs

When a single elephant dies, especially a matriarch, be it from drought or poaching or habitat loss, whole herds and social networks are disrupted.I always enjoy updates from Vicki Fishlock of Amboseli Trust for Elephants (ATE), particularly the insights they provide on elephants and their lives.

Each elephant has a unique personality, and it is interesting to discern this individuality as well as the interactions with other family members. Sometimes in conservation discussions, we tend to forget that elephants exist not just as population statistics, but also as individuals. When a single elephant dies, the surviving elephants must find new ways to carry on without their loved one. This can be especially hard.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is proud to be working with the ATE team on research that will explore the consequences for elephants from a recent severe drought inKenya (2008-2009). This drought, combined with elephant poaching for ivory, has resulted in the loss of close to one-third of the individually known and continuously tracked elephants in Amboseli. Before the drought, Amboseli boasted some 1,500 elephants. According to ATE, 95 percent of the oldest and experienced matriarchs died. These were the leaders of their families, responsible for knowing where to find food and water, for safety from threats, and how to manage social networks over a 60-plus-year lifespan.

Families were left with inexperienced matriarchs, disrupted associations, reduced social cohesion and potentially poor reproductive performance. Surviving family members appeared to be in a state of social confusion. This collaborative study explores how the rapid and unexpected loss of the oldest and most experienced individuals affects social stability, competitive ability, and, crucially, the reproductive performance within families.

IFAW believes in the need to understand how elephant families cope with these losses and change to have a better understanding of how to protect them through conservation efforts. Through the course of this project, a lot of information will be generated that will be applicable to the effective management and conservation of Amboseli elephants. From a wildlife manager’s perspective, among other queries, it will be important to know whether the elephants will still utilise the ecosystem in the same manner that they did when the matriarchs were alive. 

Will the loss of knowledge result in increased human-elephant conflict arising from changes in elephant ranging patterns?  Will these changes necessitate a review of the law enforcement strategy as a pre-emptive measure against poaching?

IFAW and ATE aim to provide insights into immediate and longer-term responses to social disruption as a result of mortality. These insights may be applied to other elephant families and populations across Africa which are experiencing the consequences of more extreme climatic events as well as poaching. I look forward to more posts from ATE about how Amboseli elephants are learning to cope with their tragic loss, and for the lessons this study can teach us about how we can help elephants survive and thrive in spite of the myriad threats they face. -- James Isiche

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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
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