Amboseli Elephant Study Families: The Cast of Characters

In this blog, I will concentrate on four of my study families: the AA, EA, GB and JA families. Elephants in Amboseli are named according to their family, so that all individuals in the family start with the same letter.

Feisty Garbatula always makes studying the GB family interesting.

Most of my previous posts have been concerned with introducing the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, my particular study, or aspects of elephant biology that are important for the study. So it’s probably about time I introduced the real stars of the show – the elephants themselves.

In this blog, I will concentrate on four of my study families: the AA, EA, GB and JA families. Elephants in Amboseli are named according to their family, so that all individuals in the family start with the same letter. Since 1987 we’ve also used an annual “theme”, so for example, we have Kenyan towns (1987 calves), African rivers (the 1992 cohort) and film stars (calves born in 2003) to name just a few.

We also have a programme of naming calves by donors, which don’t need to follow the annual themes. As there are more than 26 families, we had to cycle through the alphabet more than once, so we have the AA and AB families, the EAs and EBs, etc.

Sometimes these letters simply reflect the order in which they were identified. But sometimes they reflect historical events in the family, when families split, often after the death of a matriarch.  So, the GB and GB2 families and JA and JA2 families both underwent this process of “family splitting”.

Since the full history of each family takes acres of pages – we have known them all for almost four decades after all, and that’s a lot of births and deaths – in this post, I’m just writing small amount about each family, with my first impressions of them. In later posts, I’ll focus on each of these four families in turn and share more as I get to know them better.

The AAs

Alison, matriarch of the AAs, sends up showers of dust over her daughter Artemis and her 14-month-old grand-daughter.

Led by Alison, who was born in 1962, the family currently has 22 members. There are three older females in the family; Alison, her sister Agatha and Amelia (both born in 1968) and often the family splits along these three lines, so that each female spends more time with her daughters than they do with each other.

This is quite normal for elephants, although I do get the feeling that Alison isn’t a terribly strong leader. I have seen her try to get the family moving when they really didn’t want to leave the swamp, and in the end she had to concede. Elephants signal to each other when they want to move on by positioning themselves in the direction they wish to go – usually when the matriarch makes such a move everyone falls in behind her.

This family did quite well in the 2009 drought, in that they only lost one adult female, Audrey, born in 1972. Audrey only has one surviving daughter, Abra, who is often to be found with her aunts Amber and Angelina. Luckily for Abra, she has the chance to allomother (“babysit”) Amber’s small calf, which undoubtedly helps fill her social world after the loss of her mother.

The EAs

The EAs are a big family, many of whom are the descendants of Estella, the long-standing matriarch who died in 2006 and was possibly one of the oldest elephants recorded in Amboseli: we estimate she was in her late sixties when she died.

Keeping track of who is related to whom is a little mind-bending and their family tree takes up four pages of my notebook. Currently, there are 32 family members, with 15 females aged over ten years old.

They’re led by Eloise, who was born in 1964; she lost all three of her younger sisters and her mother Esmeralda within the space of a decade, but with such a large family she has a lot of social relationships still to manage. Eloise is also remarkable in that she’s successfully raised all eight calves she’s given birth to, and unlike Estella’s line which runs high to daughters, all except one of Eloise’s calves have been male.

The EAs lost 12 family members in the drought, two of whom were adult females. Getting to know such a large family is difficult –obviously, it’s harder to keep track of everyone and so there is less time to spend just sitting watching and getting to know individuals’ personalities. They also like spending time in the palm woodlands, so often I end up with a lovely view of some elephant backsides.

The GBs

Unashamedly, I admit the GBs are one of my favourite families.

Golda, their matriarch, was born in 1974 and leads the family which includes her two younger sisters, Goodness and Geeta. They also lost 12 family members in the 2009 drought, including two adult females. Golda, at 37, is relatively young, but the family is cohesive and seems to be doing well.

The individuals are full of personality: Garbatula, who is 24, is undoubtedly one of the feistiest elephants in my study families (see main picture), and I like her spirit. She’s a bit of a “tomboy” – she lost her mother in 2007 and has no surviving sisters. She is most often a little apart from the rest of the family with her two brothers, Gameboy and Gerard (born 2000 and 2005), and her son Gateway (also born in 2000). I’m interested to see how her behaviour will change when calves start being born into the family at the end of the year.

The GBs have an interesting family history; in 1998, Gloria died after at least 26 years as the matriarch. The two eldest females did not stay together; Grace left with her calves and created her own family, the GB2s. After her death in 2008, her eldest daughter Gwen disappeared in 2009, leaving Gail as matriarch at just 24 years old – very young to be a matriarch. She seems to be making good choices though – the GB2s are now often with the GBs, where they can benefit from Golda’s greater experience. We’re waiting to see if they will reunite to become one family again.

The JAs

I’ve already written about the JAs in several previous posts. They’re a lovely family and with just ten members, they’re one of the smallest of my study families. Hence, they’re one of the easier families for me to get to know.

Jolene is the matriarch at 33; Jody, the next oldest female, is 21; and Jamila is just 19. They lost Joyce, their matriarch and Jamila’s mother in 2009, when she was in her sixties, so having such a young matriarch is a big change for them.

All the ATE researchers have always been fond of this family and we’re rooting for these “young ladies” to re-establish themselves as a successful family. Jolene appears to be doing well at the moment, although they do sometimes “take off”.

Joyce’s son, Jackson, is eleven years old and often lags behind the family these days. Sometimes he discovers he’s been left behind and panics, running to catch up from as far as a kilometre away and sometimes making everyone else run in the process.

The JAs have been predictable in their habits since I started the study, so when they disappeared for almost a week and nobody had seen them, we wondered what had happened.

Finally we found them, all fast asleep, the calves in a heap and even twelve-year-old Jean lying down. Jackson also lay down, about 50 metres from the family. We stayed with them for an hour, and when they finally woke up, they were in no hurry to move on. Finally, Jolene gave the signal to move, and everybody did. Leaving Jackson snoring…

-- VF

How we name Amboseli elephants -

Naming an elephant -

Family histories -

More images to accompany the story -

Post a comment


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
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy