Elephant Behavior

Samburu Elephants

samburubabySamburu (National Reserve in northern Kenya) is one beautiful expanse of grassy, acacia-covered desert, surrounded by mountains and divided by the palm-fringed Ewaso Ng’iro River.  One of my favorite memories is reflected above.  We came upon a mother elephant, shading a tiny body, which we feared was her dead baby.  As we watched, the still body came to life and up stood her several-day-old child. We all sighed with relief and wiped our teary eyes, happy that the little fellow or lass would have a chance to grow up and learn from his mother.  It was 1987, poaching just outside the Reserve was escalating, elephant populations were stressed, it would not have been a surprise to see a dead elephant.

Samburu elephants have been on my mind this week because of a newly released study by Save the Elephants. Save the Elephants began intensive studies of the 1,000-strong Samburu elephant population 15 years ago.  During most of the study, peaceful times existed, populations recovered from the late ’80s.  Then, in the past three years, poaching once again escalated, death due to poaching doubled.

“. . .Older animals – usually those with larger tusks – fared particularly badly. In 2000 there were 38 known males over 30 years old. By 2011 this number had dropped to 12, of whom 7 had grown into the older age class. Almost half of the known females over 30 years old were lost between 2006 and 2011, their number dropping from 59 to 32. The wave of killing altered the age structure and age-related social organisation. In 1998 42 per cent of the population was male, but by 2011 the bulls – who bear more ivory – made up only 32 per cent. Ten of the fifty elephant groups were effectively wiped out, with no known breeding females left, while thirteen had no breeding female over the age of 25.”

The report goes on to detail how unnatural loss of mature life is threatening the population even further. Without older elephants, the young will not learn survival tactics, how to interrelate to each other, and how to flourish as a community.  Mortality of the young will increase.  The study has had an unusual, and morbid, opportunity to observe and document this impact on Samburu’s individual elephants.  Poaching kills indirectly as well as directly.

For more on Samburu Elephants, view Elephants of Samburu by National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols.