Among the Elephants Blog
November 14, 2016
Ryan Wilkie, International Intern
The arrival of Brunaleski and Alpine’s new calves on the 4th of November mark, respectively, the 4th and 5th new-borns to greet our Samburu research team in just over a month. This wave of newcomers to Samburu’s elephant families began with the birth of a new Royal – Mary’s baby boy – on the 28th of September, he remains as charismatic as the first day we saw him. Two weeks later news reached our ears that Pili Pili of the Spices had given birth to a baby girl. We were fortunate enough to spend the morning with her three days after her birth, she was initially quite shy but very sweet and has started to come out of her shell. Ten days later, returning late in the afternoon from Shaba the American Indians were sighted with a new-born – Cree’s second calf – just a week old and the 3rd new calf in as many weeks. That brings us to the two latest arrivals, both born on the 2nd of November to two different families: the Artists and the Flowers.
This little baby boom has some of us interns scratching our heads. Elephants can reproduce at any time of the year. As long as they feel secure and have plenty of food elephants should give birth regularly, why then are we seeing multiple different families giving birth almost simultaneously at the peak of the dry season? The answer, of course, lies in the seasonal bonanza brought by the rains. In seasonal environments many species will concentrate their reproduction in the time of year most likely to maximise offspring survival, it seems the elephants of Samburu adhere to the same pattern of behaviour.
The arrival of the rains in November gives rise to a feeding frenzy where the elephants have plenty of food and feel secure in the reserve. These conditions, it appears, may help to stimulate hormonal changes in the elephants that induce musth and estrus cycles and encourage the elephants to mate and conceive towards December. Approximately 22 months later once the calf has come to term the females give birth around October – just under 2 years after that initial period of plenty. The new-born calves, then, need not wait long before they too can enjoy the bonanza brought by the rains. This might also explain the baby boom of 2012, which came two years after the great flood of 2010 in Samburu when the water levels rose almost a meter and a half up the walls of the research centre at their maximum extent. If you have the opportunity to visit the centre in Samburu you can still see the top of the water line in the office marked with the date “March 2010”.
This year, however, the rains have been delayed. Elephants have arrived back in Samburu expecting to find the river in full force and the land carpeted in new grass and fresh leaves only to find a small trickle of water bound on either side by a slim band of green carving its way through a sea of dust. Our little group of new-borns is having to wait a little longer than anticipated for the time of plenty when their mothers’ rich milk will flow freely and they can play with their siblings in the rain. We hope that the wait will be over soon.