Melissa Twigg, South China Morning Post | May 22, 2021
The noise the twin baby elephants make while suckling at their mother’s teats is part grunt, part contented sigh. Occasionally, they break away from their lunch to prod each other with their trunks or partake in some gentle headbutting, and after they have had their fill, their eyelids droop and they collapse on the ground for a nap. Their mother, Angelina – recognisable by her long, slightly misshapen tusks – stands, swaying, over her babies’ sleeping bodies for nearly an hour to protect them from a nearby pride of lions.
Behind her, the snowy cap of Mount Kilimanjaro drifts in and out of sight as clouds break around it, and all about are the steamy emerald-green plains of Amboseli National Park. It has been raining for months and the abundance of grass has fed both the plump-bottomed zebras to the right of Angelina and huge herds of jittery Thomson’s gazelles in the distance. It has also helped fuel a baby boom among the elephants that congregate in this part of Kenya.
African savannah elephants are endangered, so it is undeniably good news (how rare nowadays!) that a record-breaking 248 babies were born in Amboseli last year. All but eight survived infancy – impressive given that elephants are not named by conservationists until they are four years old, as too few reach adulthood. Twins are extremely rare, as mothers generally cannot produce enough milk to sustain two such hungry animals; the last recorded surviving Kenyan elephant twins were born in the 1990s, but in this group, two sets have lived past the crucial six-month mark.
Watching Angelina feed her offspring (one male and one female) is one of those perfect East African moments that draw people from the relative comfort of their home countries to live in this extraordinarily beautiful, occasionally chaotic part of the world. Cynthia Moss is one of them. The 80-year-old American conservationist is a legend in the world of elephant research and has been based in Amboseli since 1972.
“Some of the reason for this baby boom is drought,” she says, after I drive up to meet her at her tented camp. “Whenever there is a drought, females stop cycling – in 2017, there was a terrible drought, and so in 2018 they all started mating and breeding again. Elephants are pregnant for nearly two years, which is partly why there have been so many babies born in the last year – it has been wonderful for me to see, particularly knowing what was going on in the human world at the same time. I call it the elephant effect.”
Poaching also has an impact on elephant numbers but it seems there are finally signs a global crackdown on the illegal animal trade is working. No rhinos were killed in Kenya last year, and just nine elephants were poached for their tusks; by comparison, hundreds were being killed only a decade ago. When I started writing about this topic, in 2015, the prospects for these animals seemed bleak, as the demand for rhino horn and ivory from China and Southeast Asia was seemingly uncontrollable, and there was not much even the army could do in the face of gangs offering up to US$100,000 for a single animal.
NGOs agreed the only way to slow elephant poaching was to quash demand, and so they diverted funds from Africa to China. The result could be found in Beijing and Shanghai airports, where anti-ivory posters dominated the arrivals halls, and in schools, where there has been a concerted effort to teach Chinese children as young as five about the horrors of the illegal wildlife trade.
“China is getting a lot better,” says Moss. “The fact ivory is illegal there now makes a big difference, although apparently Laos has ivory markets and rich Chinese go there to buy it, so someone is going to have to tackle that. But I hear the younger generation has a very different perspective. That only nine elephants were poached means the demand must have gone down.”
As a result thousands of elephants now roam Amboseli’s 392 sq km and 800 sq km surrounding the national park. We visited during Kenya’s second coronavirus lockdown, in April, and at times it felt as if we were entirely alone with the animals, watching them deftly pluck the grass with their trunks like an Italian twirling spaghetti with a fork, or wallow in lakes filled with melted snow from Kilimanjaro.
Young males held mock fights under the fever trees and young females babysat their siblings in preparation for motherhood. Adults touched trunks to say hello and babies tripped over their older siblings’ trunks. Two or even three times a day, our jeep would be surrounded by breeding herds and, while the long-tusked matriarchs strode ahead, curious youngsters and teenagers surged around the vehicle to get a closer look at us.
We were staying at Elewana Tortilis Camp, 20 tented suites set in an undulating conservancy that borders Amboseli, although it is difficult to know where the park begins as there are no fences in this part of Kenya. The pretty deck has a full-frontal view of Kilimanjaro and beneath the wood-lined dining room is a watering hole where one notoriously grumpy bull elephant often comes to drink at night, and trumpets with irritation if guests are making too much noise for his liking. Breeding herds visit in the heat of the day, and babies submerge themselves in the water while their mothers and aunts watch.
Elephants can pose a danger to people in a car, and they have been known to flip and even crush vehicles when they feel threatened. One irate bull aside, the elephants of Amboseli were peaceful giants, who either ignored us or looked on inquisitively.
Our guide knew how to read the elephants by the flip of a trunk or the waggle of an ear, and as a result we could sit for hours and watch the complex, private world of these animals without panicking at every sign of irritation that they displayed.
The longer we stayed, the more I understood how Moss became enamoured enough with the elephants to give up her life in America. She has lived among them for 40 years and describes them as her friends – she talks about the complex hierarchies that dictate their relationships, and of the unshakeable bonds between mothers and daughters, and also aunts, nieces and sisters. Elephants famously grieve their dead and Moss has watched them throw branches over the corpses of family members. When I described them as herds, she corrected me – “they’re families”.
“There are degrees of thought but we need to accept that animal consciousness can be as powerful as ours,” said Moss. “Elephants are still a mystery to me, but we do know they have very large and convoluted brains. When a vervet monkey is born, the baby’s brain is 90 per cent of the size of an adult’s; a human baby’s brain is 26 per cent of the size and an elephant’s is 35 per cent. Like us, they have a lot of learning to do before they grow up. Watching an elephant change between age 15 and 30 years old is very rewarding – just like a human, I suppose.”
On our last day at Elewana, we were woken before dawn with coffee and home-made biscuits, and driven through the empty park to an acacia forest on the boundary, where we found Angelina’s herd – sorry, family – again. These 20 or so elephants were likely to leave Amboseli that day and walk towards the lakes in eastern Kenya, giving the grasses of Amboseli a chance to regrow. But right now they were busy stripping the bark off a tree they had brought down.
Trunks are extraordinarily dexterous, able to both crush a sturdy branch and delicately rip off thin slivers of bark to eat. One elephant grunted in pleasure at the taste, another trumpeted when her sister pushed her out the way, and the matriarch nudged them both to get back to work. Angelina scratched at the wood with her misshapen tusk while the twins stood in the shade of her vast body, touching trunks and rubbing cheeks.
The sun rose higher and the matriarch decided it was time to leave. They traipsed silently past the car, and as each one swivelled its head to stare at us, it felt as if they were saying goodbye. They had vanished into the trees within minutes, but when hours later we were navigating the snarling gridlock that is Nairobi traffic, we realised we were far less irate than usual.
The elephant effect in action.