Researching the fate of wild orphans in Samburu


Save the Elephants

Date Published

A new project by Save the Elephants researcher Shifra Goldenberg is going to examine in detail the survival strategies of elephants orphaned by poaching. The elephants of Samburu are the world’s best-studied elephant population that is afflicted by high levels of poaching.

Around a thousand individual elephants and their relationships are known to STE, making it possible to tell exactly who orphaned elephants turn to when poachers strike.

The lessons learnt will give important detail to the impacts of the ongoing ivory poaching crisis that is devastating elephant populations across East and Central Africa. Even with a National Reserve where safe haven can usually be found, the impacts of poaching on the elephants of Samburu are severe. One in five families now no longer have a mature female to lead them. The picture is doubtless worse in other less well-protected areas.

Baby elephants under the age of two who lose their mothers are almost certain to perish, but older orphans use a number of different strategies to survive. Some turn to relations for help and are successfully adopted by them. Others turn to their friends of similar age, and manage to get included in that family’s life.

Not all orphan stories end well. Last month Shifra started monitoring a mystery orphan known only as “M.R. C’05f,” (for Mountain Ranges female calf estimated to be born in 2005) who had attached herself to a group, but who later died.

“She could have died from lots of things, a very natural process. Calves die,” Shifra says. “I can’t help but wonder, however, how much more susceptible to disease these orphans or peripherals become once they lose their families and are faced with the distressing task of new friendship formation in an elephant world where members are dependent on social bonds for survival.”

From next month Shifra Goldenberg, a PhD candidate at Colorado State University, will be tracking five different orphans with GPS collars. By focussing on families that Save the Elephants knows well, she will be in a good position to begin unravelling the deeper impacts of poaching on elephant society.

Europa (from the Planets family), Habiba (the Swahili Ladies), Amayeta (the American Indians), Rita Dove (the Poetics) and Rosalynn (the First Ladies) are likely to be Shifra’s study animals. Over the coming month we’ll be posting their stories, so watch this space!