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Notes from Elephant Country (Mushara Elephant Project)

There’s a baby boom in Elephant Country. And while some happily greet the new additions to the family with a pig pile (photograph above) and a wallow (below), others appear to have trouble making room and are resistant to sharing mom’s side (below).

Pic 2: Young calves welcome their new playmates. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Pic 2: Young calves welcome their new playmates. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Pic 3: It appears that some older calves have to adjust to not being the center of attention and having mom’s full attention. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Pic 3: It appears that some older calves have to adjust to not being the center of attention and having mom’s full attention. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Sometimes mom has to intervene with a poke of the tusk (below).

Mom pokes an older calf out of the way so her younger calf has room to nurse. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Mom pokes an older calf out of the way so her younger calf has room to nurse. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Meanwhile, babies hang on tight and look to mom and their aunts, cousins and sibs to show them the way of the elephant and keep them out trouble (photographs below).

A new male calf hangs on to mom while the family gets ready to leave the waterhole. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
A new male calf hangs on to mom while the family gets ready to leave the waterhole. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Young moms are learning on the job; and danger comes from unexpected places like falling into the water. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Young moms are learning on the job; and danger comes from unexpected places like falling into the water. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Although, sometimes there’s no keeping a young male elephant out of trouble. Just yesterday, we watched Leonardo teach his baby brother, Liam, that no animal is too big to be intimidated by an elephant (below).

Four-year-old calf, Leonardo, teaches his baby brother that giraffes are fair game to chase. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Four-year-old calf, Leonardo, teaches his baby brother that giraffes are fair game to chase. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

On windy days, when the elephants don’t cover too much ground, they only come in after dark and the night work keeps us busy in the bunker. Most of Big Momma’s family didn’t mind the intrusion last night, but her high-ranking underlings like Nandi kept a keen eye on us (below).

Collecting dominance interaction data from the bunker sparks interest from Big Momma’s high-ranking females like Nandi. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Collecting dominance interaction data from the bunker sparks interest from Big Momma’s high-ranking females like Nandi. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

We continue to collect fecal DNA from known family members to build a sample size for our current study aimed at understanding politics within elephant families in this harsh desert environment. I went out to the southern edge of the clearing to collect Ursula’s defecation after her family, the Goddesses left the waterhole (below).

Collecting fecal DNA on Ursula, the matriarch of the Goddesses. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Collecting fecal DNA on Ursula, the matriarch of the Goddesses. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Ursula is the matriarch of a growing family (first photograph below), totaling twenty-eight individuals this season, including four new babies. And as aggressive as she continues to be toward other family groups (second photograph below), we haven’t seen as much of the internal family strife that we’ve witnessed within other large families such as the Actors, where the second ranking Susan has made sure that the low ranking Wynona and her budding family keeps their distance. And with two new additions to Wynona’s family in the past month, that’s two more mouths to feed.

Ursula obliges us by holding out her ears for an i.d. photo. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Ursula obliges us by holding out her ears for an i.d. photo. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Ursula displaces a lower ranking family at the waterhole. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Ursula displaces a lower ranking family at the waterhole. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

We continue to observe evidence that family social dynamics appear to be quite different in this desert environment than in environments where resources are more plentiful. Understanding bloodlines may help shed light on these differences. The largest family group size in the Mushara region tends to be between twenty-eight and thirty individuals strong.

Now there are three families that we have been following that have reached twenty-eight individuals. Is thirty the maximum number of individuals a family group reaches before the family starts to break into smaller, more manageable groups that are easier to feed in this stark environment? And is that fission active or passive? These are some of the many current questions we are trying to understand within the Mushara Elephant Project.

Caitlin O’Connell and her husband, Tim Rodwell, started the Mushara Elephant Project in Namibia 24 years ago to to better understand elephant social structure, communication and health in order to apply this knowledge to improved care in captivity and ultimately to elephant conservation in the wild  O’Connell is on the faculty at Stanford University School of Medicine and CEO of the elephant-focused nonprofit, Utopia Scientific. A five-time grantee of the National Geographic Society, she is also an award-winning author of five nonfiction books about elephants and a thriller series about the ivory trade. Read all her dispatches from the field. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

 

Comments

  1. mike.
    Reno.
    July 10, 11:07 am

    Great pictures ! Thank you so much.

  2. Keith Lindsay
    Oxford, UK
    July 9, 4:04 pm

    Nice stories from the waterhole. It’s just a pity that Namibia has proposed to CITES to re-open the ivory trade, and put these and all Africa’s elephants at greater risk.