By Joyce Poole
Petter Granli and I left Cottars 1920s Safari Camp on the border of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, the northern extension of the great Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. We were heading toward the Sand River crossing, where elephants had been seen the evening before.
The route was not direct, as tracks twisted and turned, split and rejoined, and came to an abrupt dead end in deep erosion gullies. Yet with the surrounding hills as landmarks, we couldn’t get lost. As long as we aimed northwest, we would eventually come to the crest of the hill and see the river below.
As we approached the crossing, we spotted an elephant family on the other bank. With our new telephoto zoom lens we would be able to obtain the ID photographs we needed, as well as get a good count of the group, without having to make the crossing.
As we focused on the group of 16 elephants, another family appeared in the bushes beyond, and then a third clambered up a rocky outcrop and into view. And on our side of the river a family of four made their way to the river. We paused to photograph a magnificent musth male, who demonstrated his aggressive and sexual state with distinctive ear-waving and pulsating musth-rumbling.
We took our ID photos, entered observational data into our smartphone through our Mara EleApp, and then we drove partway up the hill we’d just descended for a vantage point to search for other nearby groups. As we scanned the horizon, Petter suddenly said, “Listen, elephants!” On the other side of the car, I could just detect distant trumpeting. “Let’s drive to the top of the hill to see if we can spot them,” I suggested, urging him to hurry.
Trumpeting always means drama in an elephant family, but I hadn’t been able to hear the tone of their vocalizations well enough to know whether their excitement was related to a social event or a disturbance.
Petter, my husband, partner-in-everything, and ElephantVoices colleague, carefully maneuvered our trusty Land Cruiser up the hill, dodging rocks and aardvark holes as I felt my impatience rise. Petter enjoys driving and handles the vehicle superbly, as he does with any technical or computer challenge. I’m a good bush driver myself, but at just over five feet tall, I can barely see over the hood of the car and reach the pedals. Yet I have very clear ideas of how I want to approach elephants, which I’m not always able to communicate to Petter in a clear or polite way, especially when I feel a sense of urgency. Petter knows my impulsive side well and can take it, even with humor.
I managed to contain the itchy feeling of agitation, and we reached the top of the hill without incident. We threw open the doors so we could stand on the running boards for a better view of the valley below. We could hear the trumpeting clearly now, and I knew from the tone and cadence of the sounds that these were what I refer to as social-trumpets. They’re trumpets that elephants make as a sort-of exclamation mark, when something of great social significance is taking place, such as an intense greeting, a mating in the family, or the birth of a new family member.
I needed to see the elephants’ behavior to know what exactly was taking place and to figure out where to go! Where were they? Again, I felt that rising excitement pulse through my body, the tingling most intense in my arms as I gripped my binoculars.
A Newborn in a Tangle of Legs and Trunks
We scanned the landscape in the direction of the trumpet calls, and then we saw the elephants, a family of 13, clumped together under a lone acacia tree. What were they doing? As I expected, they were flapping their ears rapidly back and forth, as they would during any highly social event. Then I noticed a giveaway posture that allowed me to determine, even at more than half a mile away, that a baby had just been born: They were all oriented toward something in the middle of the group, and all their heads were lowered as if focused on something on the ground.
We jumped into the car, and Petter drove as fast as he could down the south side of the hill. We turned eastward along the riverbed as we searched for the little track that we remembered would lead us across the stream and directly to the lone tree where the elephants were standing, still trumpeting, rumbling, and flapping their ears in excitement.
Arriving at the tightly bunched group, we could barely see the newborn, surrounded as it was by a forest of 48 pillar-like legs and 12 trunks. But through gaps, we could just make out a tiny male elephant. He was struggling to get to his feet, only to topple over, much to the consternation of his entire family. Each time he fell, the elephants burst forth with more rumbling and trumpeting, as trunks reached to comfort and steady him. Then the little calf struggled to his feet again, managing to stay on all fours for 16 seconds before tipping over. Four minutes later, perhaps 30 minutes after his birth, he was on his feet, had passed his meconium, and there was no looking back.
We were close to the Tanzania border, and the family, perhaps having come into Kenya from the Serengeti, was new to us. In all the commotion it wasn’t easy to figure out who was who, though the matriarch stood out. She was a large female, and I quickly made a mental note of her key features: A knobbly forehead indicated she was an older female; even, symmetrical tusks; a large V-tear in her upper left ear and a rather nondescript right ear, with a few small notches. She also had a large abscess behind her right front leg, likely caused by an arrow, which was clearly giving her some discomfort.
The new mother was easily identifiable by the fresh blood on the insides of her back legs. Other than that distinguishing feature, which would soon disappear, she had only a couple of small notches in her ears and short straight tusks. Besides the newborn, there were another ten elephants to account for. In my field notes I tried my best to distinguish one from the other and to figure out who the calves belonged to, listing them under their mothers:
- Matriarch—adult female 45+ years, with v-tear upper left ear and large abscess right leg: (later registered as f0794).
- Male 3 years; seen suckling from matriarch.
- Female 7-8 years, later seen in company of matriarch and likely her daughter.
- Female ~ 30 years; two holes in left ear; straight tusks (f0795).
- Female 2 years; tusks just showing beyond lip; seen near 30-year-old female.
- Female 20 years with splayed tusks; left tusk longer; crooked tail (f0796).
- Calf 6 months belonging to splayed-tusk female.
- Female 6-7 years with short tusks, right shorter, acting as allo-mother to newborn; by appearance would guess she is the younger sister to the new mother or daughter to splayed-tusk female.
- Female 4-5 years with wrinkly forehead, also acting as allo-mother to newborn.
- Female 15 years, new mother (first calf), with small notches in left and right ears, short straight tusks, odd bump on end of tail.
- Male newborn
- Male 5 years with splayed tusks, smooth right ear, whose calf is he?
- Female 5 years, whose calf is she?
The entire family fussed over the infant for more than an hour, and then the matriarch led the main body of the group off to find shade under the acacia. They left the new mother, her infant, and two little females—a four-year-old and a six-year-old—out in the sun, absorbed in helping the infant.
Their separation didn’t last long: Minutes later, the infant fell over, making the loud husky-cry, a sound only produced by newborns in distress, which brought the rest of the family rushing back to help. Only the little five-year-old male was unmoved; indeed he hung back from the family, shaking his head in annoyance.
Soon after, the family split again, with the main body of the group wandering down toward the stream and the newborn, his mother, and her two little helpers moving to the other side of the tree.
Their departure allowed us to get out of the car and examine the spot where the calf had been born. The ground had been trampled, as is typical of an elephant birth, and the birth sac and placenta lay in the center of the disturbed area, a few yards apart.
The placenta was enormous and would certainly make a good meal for a predator. (Indeed, when we returned the following day, it was gone). I reached down to feel the birth sac. The membrane was beginning to dry, and I was tempted to take a piece of it. Finding the birth sac of an elephant is considered very good luck by the Maasai, as well as by other peoples in East Africa, and I already had a piece at home on a shelf among my many “treasures”.
I was just about to cut myself a section, when our attention was drawn to the arrival of a young 16-year-old male. Having witnessed two births previously and seen many infants in the first few hours of life, I knew that his presence could pose a real threat to the baby.
Males typically appear on the scene after a birth, attracted to families by the intense rumbling and trumpeting, and they show great interest in the smell of new mothers. While older males seem able to discriminate between the smell of a female who is receptive and one who has just given birth, young males appear to be clueless! In their clumsy, inexperienced attempts to mount (and fall off) a new mother, they can put the life of a tiny infant in danger.
In 1999, in Amboseli National Park, I witnessed Ella give birth and was able to record the rumbling and trumpeting celebration, which lasted more than 45 minutes. Two males showed up soon afterward: the famous Dionysus (of “Enter Dionysus” fame, from the Echo of the Elephants film), who just sniffed Ella and went on his way, and a younger male who mounted her while the infant lay on the ground beneath her.
To my amazement, matriarch, Echo, and her daughter, Erin, immediately understood the threat posed by this young male. They ran to Ella’s side, pressing their bodies up against hers and providing shelter for the infant, so that when the male dismounted his big feet would not land on him (See, Social Trumpet (B1503259).
This time, though, the young male was much better behaved. He arrived and tested the new mother, as expected, and showed some physical signs that he found her appealing. But before he was able to make a move on her, the infant tottered over underneath him and began looking for a place to suckle. The gentle, explorative touches of the infant seemed to unnerve the young male, who seemed a little unsure how to behave, standing still as the baby wandered about under his belly. Petter and I held our breath: We expected that the baby would be kicked and were relieved when the young male went on his way.
Over the next two hours, we had almost uninterrupted views of the infant, with his adorable pink ears, as he tried and failed to suckle from his mother. Being a first-time mother, she was rather incompetent. An experienced mother would have used her trunk to guide her newborn to her nipple, but she simply stood with her leg forward, apparently hoping that he’d find her breast. We thought it strange that this young mother’s own mother wasn’t there to assist her. Then too, we didn’t know who her mother was, or even whether she was living. The matriarch and the splay-tusked female had shown interest, but neither had remained with her, suggesting that the matriarch was not her mother (the splay-tusk female was too young to be). Meanwhile, her two little helpers were very proactive. They repeatedly maneuvered their way between mother and baby, placing a front leg forward and proffering their breast-less chests. The little fellow attempted to suckle from whatever was offered to him. His mother became increasingly agitated, trying to intervene when he attempted to suckle from the little females.
The little group of four went round and round the lone tree in this fashion, before eventually making their way toward the rest of the family, which had already crossed the stream. We watched the baby totter into the water and clamber, unaided, up the other bank.
A Start On A Life Of Learning
Petter and I contemplated what we’d witnessed: the exquisite and perfect beauty of a newborn elephant, the compassion and empathy displayed by the family, and the importance of experience and social learning so well demonstrated by the young mother’s lack of skills and the little females’ attempts to gain them.
We may have been spoiled by our many elephant experiences, but we never stop being touched and awed by them. We had been fortunate to spend the entire day in the company of these great “people,” but we knew they would face many others of the human race in the days, weeks, and months to come. We could only hope the encounters would be friendly.
The following day, in the evening light, we found the family just as they were about to cross to the north side of the Sand River. Less than 30 hours old, the baby had already learned a bit about an elephant’s world and had become more steady and confident. This would be his first of many crossings.
The family scaled the bank, took a shortcut across an oxbow, then descended into the river for a second crossing, back to the south side of the river. We were excited to watch the matriarch testing the firmness of the sand with her curled trunk before taking a step. This was the second time we’d seen an elephant use this smart technique to avoid sinking into it and becoming stuck.
The newborn would have to learn this trick too. Indeed, the transfer of knowledge from matriarch and mother and others will continue until he becomes independent from his natal family at around 14 years of age and enters the new world of males—if he survives the many challenges and dangers that lie ahead.
It’s About People Too
The Mara ecosystem is changing rapidly. The human population is increasing; traditional pastoralists are shifting to agriculture; grazing land is being subdivided into small fenced plots; demand for ivory is at an all-time high.
Our project in the Mara, Elephant Partners: Conservation through citizen science and web technology, has been as much about building a community that cares as about elephants. Both Petter and I deeply believe that unless local people are enthusiastically engaged in conservation, it is difficult to see how wildlife and habitats will survive long term. We mentor and work with many Kenyans who are taking great initiatives—but we value the chance to spend uninterrupted time with elephants again. For two days we’d been alone in the company of elephants without another car in sight. What a privilege!
The infant, his mother, and a helper followed the matriarch across the river, and we left them in the gathering dusk. What will become of this little elephant? From decades of research, we knew that his chances of making it to adulthood were slim, and the probability that he would reach breeding age were smaller still.
Males suffer higher mortality than females, irrespective of poaching. Males grow faster, require more food, and are the first to succumb when their mothers run out of milk. Larger males gain access to receptive females, and those who raid crops grow faster. No gain without pain: Many males are willing to risk being speared or arrowed for the gains they can make by raiding farmers’ fields.
And then comes the threat of poachers. The tusks of males grow to be seven times the weight of those of females of the same age, putting males at risk once more. Small wonder that the Mara population is highly skewed toward females. In 2012 alone 149 elephant deaths were recorded, of which 139 were illegally killed, the large majority male. Using “mark-recapture” methodology (actually sighting and re-sighting of individually known elephants), our data indicate a population of some 4,000 elephants. While this figure is higher than the aerial survey count, elephants disregard international boundaries, and many of those we meet, like the newborn’s family, are “Serengeti elephants.” Family structure, sex ratio, orphan sightings, and mortality figures indicate that this is not an increasing population.
The little male and his family must navigate this dangerous landscape. If the stars line up for him, one day he’ll roam the land as a musth male, fathering little elephants, bringing tourist revenue to the local community, maintaining the biodiversity of this great ecosystem. And nurturing the souls of generations of people to come.
Joyce Poole and Petter Granli are cofounders and codirectors of ElephantVoices and run elephant conservation projects in Gorongosa, Mozambique, and in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, the latter supported by the National Geographic Society. Joyce grew up in Kenya and has studied elephants and worked for their conservation and welfare since 1975. A graduate of Smith College and Cambridge University, she has made several groundbreaking discoveries about elephant behavior and communication. Petter is trained as an economist. His venture into conservation began in 1998 as a founder and director of the award-winning Norwegian eco-travel company, Basecamp Explorer. Joyce and Petter joined forces in 1999. They founded ElephantVoices in 2002, with the mission to inspire wonder in the intelligence, complexity, and voices of elephants, and to secure a kinder future for them through research and the sharing of knowledge.