The perks of family


Jenna Parker, International Intern

Date Published

I am new to working with Save the Elephants, currently stationed in the Samburu research camp as an intern. I hope to eventually study under Dr. George Wittemyer, the primary scientist of Colorado State University who began the long-term elephant research project here in 1997. In light of this, my primary task at the moment is learning to identify the resident elephants. This means that I accompany the research team when they collect daily long-term monitoring data. Individual elephants are quickly starting to take shape out of the crowd, and I have already been witness to remarkable displays of elephant behavior, becoming privy to a society whose emotional and intellectual depth is stunningly similar to our own.

Because elephants organize themselves into female-led family groups, each of the breeding females originally present in the population at the start of this long-term monitoring study received a letter-number name. Therefore, “M4” refers to a female of the Royals family who was present from the beginning. “M” stands for migrant, meaning M4’s family migrated into the park. She was likely the 4th migrant female named. Other females were given names starting with “R,” referring to resident, and still others names starting with “S,” referring to the sporadic nature of their appearances. However, even scientists like properly named subjects, so females of breeding age have also been awarded a name in the traditional sense. M4’s alias is Cleopatra. Still, understanding the letter/number system is essential with respect to calves. Calves are named with their mother’s letter-number code, followed by a decimal and the last two digits of the year they were born. For example, Rodin (of the Artists family) has the code R23. She had a calf in 1993 who is known as R23.93. R23.93 reached breeding age and was given the name Nikki. Nikki (R23.93) now has a calf who was born in 2010, and is thus named R23.9310. Understanding this system will demystify the derivation of names given to individuals I will often be referring to.

One of the families I learned the quickest is the “Winds 3” group. Typhoon (M62.91), the matriarch (M62 has since passed), and her sister Zephyros (M62.95) both have easily distinguishable ear damage, in the form of large cuts and nicks. Their group is also small. It consists of Typhoon and her three calves, ages 10, 6, and 1, and Zephyros and her two calves, ages 7 and 2 weeks. I bring up the Winds 3 because their behavior toward this newest little male, M62.9515, is a brilliant illustration of the importance of family life in the elephant world. M62.9515 is absolutely adored and coddled, by mother, aunt, sister and older two cousins alike. When we first discovered him and drove our car up to figure out what sex he is, everyone huddled protectively around him, and moved away from us in a mass amalgamation, wary of our presence. A couple days later, we found him exploring amidst his feeding family. When they began to move on he stumbled, and everyone simultaneously reached out to touch him with their trunks, letting him know it was okay and encouraging him. (If “encourage” is too anthropomorphic a word for some ethological purists, then I challenge them to witness such a behavior and explain it more clearly while still preserving its depth.) It was really beautiful.


M62.9515 with aunt, Typhoon (left) and mother, Zephyros (right)

M62.9515 with aunt, Typhoon (left) and mother, Zephyros (right)

Mothers also recognize the cries of their calves. This morning we were sitting with the large Artists family when a young male called R24.09 began chasing after another young male, R22.8908, who vocalized loudly. A large uproar of rumbles and trumpets ensued as R22.8908’s mother Flaubert (R22.89) came to his rescue, chasing off R24.09. The interesting thing is that Flaubert was facing away from the commotion, within a group of twenty or so elephants, most of them behind her. However, when her son vocalized, she immediately knew it was him, and turned around to rush to his aide. No sooner had she chased off R24.09 than R24 (Matisse), previously engrossed in feeding, ran over to comfort her troublemaking son in turn. Elephants make excellent mothers, although I am not sure R24.09 deserved Matisse’s comfort.