Bonsai’s deep roots


Dr. George Wittemyer

Date Published

We tried to reconstruct the scene of the killing, following the small trail of splattered blood-the only clues that remained from the latest poaching of a known female in the protected areas where we work. It was difficult work, as the clues after two days are subtle. We finally figured out where she had been poached, seeing the bush she was feeding on, the blood possibly from the initial bullet strike, and the markings from when her tusk dug into the earth as her feet slipped. But she managed to rise again, was shot again, and still walked over two kilometers from that shooting site before she died. I had named her Bonsai of the Hardwoods family when I first identified her, on account of her sharply curled tusks that reminded me of a bonsai tree.

We have been monitoring the Samburu elephant population on an individual basis since 1997. The Save the Elephants team systematically records the behavior and demography of the 900 elephants we know. This level of detailed understanding provides unprecedented insight to the social and demographic consequences of poaching on elephants – insight that we are sharing with individuals involved in policy, outreach, and education. While not our initial focus, our research has changed in response to the pressures on elephants and now we spend much of our efforts collecting information on elephant death; using this to understand the impacts of ivory poaching. In 2011 we collared Bonsai to monitor her movements as a potential Ngare Mara crop-raider (collar donated by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund) and we have been tracking her until her death.

The Hardwoods family has had a turbulent time in Samburu since I identified them 16 years ago. They were a family that split into three groups, each lead by big matriarchs. Over the years, all but one of the adult females originally identified have gone. Teak, the overall matriarch, disappeared in 2001. Less than a year later, Mahogany and Sandalwood were lost, with survivors from the family returning to the park with bullet wounds-resolving their cause of death. Ebony, the lone adult over 50 year old, was discovered in 2011-an Ak-47 bullet protruding from her desiccated skull. It had taken us six weeks to find her body and reconstruct to whom the skinless skeleton belonged. And now Bonsai.

When sitting in close proximity to elephants, it always amazes me how small an elephant’s tusks are relative to its body. Certainly far less than a hundredth of its weight, and for that these animals are dying in the thousands per year. When I started in Samburu in 1997, the population was relatively stable, family groups were lead by old females that were often flanked by middle aged females, the dominant bulls in the park were massive, and the age structure was not unlike what you would expect in a normal, healthy population. Thing have changed as the local price for ivory increased. The resident large bulls are nearly gone. Most families have been impacted in some way by the surge in killing. Encountering solitary orphans 4-10 years old is increasingly common. All these signs demonstrate the level of disturbance.

It has been a terrible thing to systematically record this process as it effects elephants we have known and followed through our relatively brief 16 year window into their lives. The rigor of the data and our science serves as a buffer. Recording the date of death in a spreadsheet on ones computer seems innocuous, but when individual after individual is registered as gone the magnitude of what is happening can be overwhelming. As we are witnessing this week with Bonsai’s calves, the elephants continue to piece together their lives, the young to play with their age mates and siblings exploring and developing new relationships out of a changed existence, and the adults to lead their families through the hazards of life as best they can. And we too continue to record the data, hoping for the trend in our records to show signs of ebbing and trying to understand what we can of the lives the survivors are leading.

Samburu, June 2013