Poaching Leaves Elephant Daughters in Charge


Amy Yee, New York Times

Date Published


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SAMBURU NATIONAL RESERVE, Kenya — The Land Cruiser bumped and rattled over the lush, tawny savanna dotted with acacia trees.

George Wittemyer, the scientific director of the conservation group Save the Elephants, steered the car toward movement in a thicket.

Around a bend stood several families totaling about 50 elephants in a loose cluster. They munched leaves from trees, thrashing and breaking branches spiked with long thorns, or stood basking in the sun, swaying their trunks and fanning their giant ears. Babies that nestled against older elephants looked as pliable as putty, cuddly as oversize toys, even though newborns weigh about 200 pounds.

The youngsters and adolescents were led by young females — daughters that prematurely stepped into the roles of matriarchs after ivory poachers killed their mothers. A mother elephant typically becomes head of the family at about age 35. The younger set here ranged from 15 to 28.

The oldest, Desert Rose, began leading her young cousins after their matriarch, Maua, was killed in April 2014 by a poacher’s automatic rifle.

Dr. Wittemyer, an associate professor in conservation biology at Colorado State University, has been studying the elephants here at the reserve since 1997, before his graduate studies. He knows them by name, as if they are old friends. He pointed out Habiba and Cinnamon and Pilipili, distinguished by ear markings. The elephants are grouped in families named after spices, flowers, weather formations, artists, poets, first ladies, Swahili names and more.

A few curious elephants approached his vehicle. One rested her tusks against the roof rack, giving the vehicle a gentle but powerful nudge before stepping away. Eventually, the elephants finished munching leaves and trooped to a gushing river nearby. One by one, the animals from the different families crossed, spraying themselves and frolicking in the brown water. Even the de facto young matriarchs rolled and played. Trumpeting blasted through the air.

Poaching has wiped out scores of pachyderms and their matriarchs, prompting researchers to study elephants more closely to monitor the orphans and the complex social ties within the family networks. From 2010 to 2012 alone, approximately one-fifth of Africa’s elephant population — about 100,000 — was slaughtered by poachers, according to Save the Elephants.

Researchers worry that the loss of elders, especially the matriarchs that were targeted by poachers for their large tusks, would severely impair the ability of younger ones to survive and thrive. The matriarchs carry a vast amount of knowledge about their surroundings, including safe migratory routes, the availability of water in arid landscapes, threats from predators and other vital information.

“Habiba and all her brothers and sisters and cousins — they’re just in a little group. Their mothers were all dead,” Dr. Wittemyer said. “These kids stuck together, but they didn’t have any adult supervision, so to speak. We were really scared about what was going to happen.”

But researchers have watched as the social networks of Samburu’s elephants help them regroup, with young daughters assuming bigger roles in caretaking. Even females as young as 15 “tended to emulate the social contact pattern of their mothers,” Dr. Wittemyer said. “If their mothers are highly social and their mother dies, the kids tend to be highly social. And if the mothers are not, the kids tend not to be.”

Less social mothers have produced less social children with smaller networks, a phenomenon that researchers are still studying.

Those findings, published in the journal Current Biology this year, offer some hope during a bleak time for elephants. The current poaching epidemic started in 2009, but so slowly that researchers in Samburu did not realize its severity. “In 2010, we started getting very concerned; 2011 was a disaster,” Dr. Wittemyer said.

Social networks are just one area of research for Save the Elephants, in addition to how elephants are migrating and whether orphans show negative physical effects after their mothers are killed. And though these conservation biologists study animals, their work starkly reflects the effects humans have on the elephants’ environment.

To understand how social networks have been affected, researchers analyzed 16 years of data about Samburu’s elephants and found surprising resilience. For example, the researchers recorded positive interactions between elephants like wrapping trunks, smelling one another’s mouths and rubbing one another. The researchers also noted negative behavior, like how often elephants pushed orphans away versus nonorphans.

Daughters not only emulated their mothers’ social behavior, younger elephants even rebuilt networks through distant social connections to families whose most mature adults had been killed. Some new matriarchs took to caring for the young immediately, but the reactions among orphans are still being studied.

“The story of the Samburu orphans is one of the most poignant examples of the importance of collaboration and friendship I have seen in a nonhuman system,” Dr. Wittemyer said. “Here are wonderful examples of these orphans moving on with their lives and rebuilding their highly and critically important social world.”

In 2014, Kenya toughened penalties for poaching and wildlife trafficking with fines up to $200,000, or even life imprisonment. Previously, maximum fines were about $400.

Not That Simple to Spot

A couple of days later, Dr. Wittemyer strained to spot an elephant from the window of a six-seat Cessna that looped above Samburu. From that height, the landscape was reduced to splotches of green atop a palette of dusty brown. He and Frank Pope, Save the Elephant’s chief operating officer and the plane’s pilot, were looking for an elephant that had lost its radio collar.

Finding the multiton creature proved harder than it sounded. The landscape’s monotonous patchwork mimics an elephant’s coloring, and the animals often seek shelter beneath trees during the heat of day. The plane circled and lurched through the hot afternoon air, but there was no sign of the errant animal.

Save the Elephants is studying the migration of elephants by using GPS radio collars and satellite-generated maps. In the past year, conservationists have put collars on 40 Samburu elephants to expand research on their movements.

Through this work, Save the Elephants knows that some elephants move nearly 40 miles a day, usually under cover of night. They cover so much ground to find the food and water that depends on Kenya’s rains, as well as to mate and to find safe havens. “We collared Habiba’s mother for several years,” Dr. Wittemyer said. “We knew her range. She went down south past the mountains to Il Ngwezi,” he added, referring to a conservation area. “Unfortunately, they all got killed.”

Because the radio collars show where elephants are almost in real time, wildlife rangers can be deployed to elephants’ locations to safeguard them or help them if injured.

As Kenya builds more highways, railways and infrastructure, and as towns expand, researchers are studying migratory patterns of elephants in land increasingly shared with more people. The country’s growing population places higher demands on land, food, water, transportation and other resources.

Indeed, Kenya plans to build a corridor that includes a railway, a highway and an oil pipeline, from the Kenyan coast cutting through the country’s interior to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

“With these developments comes the potential to sever migration routes,” Dr. Wittemyer said.

A new railway between the capital, Nairobi, and Mombasa, the region’s major port on the Kenyan coast, is on track to be completed next year. A collision between wildlife and people in the region has worsened this year with the elephants unable to move between the two halves of Tsavo, the country’s largest national park, because of construction of a 380-mile elevated railway. The park is home to half of the country’s 25,000 elephants. And in southern Kenya near Amboseli National Park, conservationists worry that new settlements have sprouted up dangerously close to wildlife crossings.

With information about how elephants migrate, land use planners, developers and politicians can work around wildlife routes, regulate human expansion and modify infrastructure.

For example, elephants and other wildlife are using underpasses built beneath highways connecting forests in central Kenya and northern rangelands. This planning also helps Kenya’s seminomadic herders whose livestock must graze and drink.

“We’re trying to get at an elephant’s mind — why it uses space across the ecosystem the way it does,” Dr. Wittemyer said. “This is fundamental for land use planning: what kinds of areas we need to conserve outright, what types we need to facilitate movement through, and what kinds of areas are not essential to elephants.”

Back on the ground at the research camp, Mr. Pope of Save the Elephants flipped open his computer to a Google Earth map of the area. Orange spots depicting the elephants with radio collars are closely tracked. The previous night, one elephant covered almost 25 miles, slowly at first along electric fences and past towns. Beyond the human settlements, he made a beeline to a conservation area where he stayed and hardly moved.

Mr. Pope flipped to another screen with a wildlife news feed from Asia, where stories from India involved clashes between humans and elephants, some resulting in death on both sides. India’s dense population contributes to the conflict.

Across Africa, human populations are growing and pressures on land are increasing. Kenya’s population of 43 million is expected to exceed 81 million by 2050. In 28 African countries, the population is projected to more than double by 2050.

“Some conflict arises when elephants are trying to move to another area and they’re forced to go through places where people live,” Mr. Pope said. “If we can define and protect wildlife corridors, we have a hope of preventing this type of conflict, which is the primary challenge facing elephants in India.”

A Close Look at Dung

On another afternoon, the Ph.D researcher Jenna Parker spent two hours watching a small group of orphans from the Spices family. They rested beneath an acacia as the noon sun burned overhead. A juvenile rested his trunk on a tree while a 4-year-old calf relaxed by lying down on his side. The bigger elephants became heavy lidded and stood resting their trunks, like canes, on the ground.

Finally, the herd stirred, with elephants named Dill and Celery releasing a stream of droppings. When the elephants lumbered off, Ms. Parker jumped out of the car with plastic gloves and vials ready. She scooped up the warm, grass-green dung for her collection of more than 1,200 samples that she will test for parasites, the stress hormone cortisol and E. coli bacteria.

Ms. Parker is studying whether orphans show physiological stress after mothers have been killed. The goal is to understand how humans, through poaching, “have altered the well-being of another highly social, cognitively advanced species,” she said.

It will take several years for her research to yield results. “Science is a slow process,” Ms. Parker said. She climbed back into the vehicle to follow another family across the savanna.