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News from Amboseli Trust for Elephants - February 2012

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  Jan Wednesday, 22 February 2012 13:44

News from Amboseli Trust for Elephants - February 2012

News from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants
January - February 2012

Dear Jan,
It's a new year with new hopes and fears for elephants. The extraordinary baby boom in Amboseli gives us hope. Watching these tiny calves coming into the world and learning how to walk, how to use their trunks and finding out how much fun it is to play with other calves fills one with joy. None of us on the project ever tires of watching the newborns and delighting in their antics.

At the same time we fear for their future. Will they be able to live to 60+ years or will their lives be cut short by a poacher's bullet, a spear or a poisoned cabbage? In this issue we report on TRAFFIC's alarming figures for confiscations of illegal ivory. The demand for ivory is growing and is truly frightening.

Even if the ivory trade could be brought under control, there is the additional fear that elephant habitat will be gone in 10, 20, 30 years.

We at ATE think there is a future for elephants but we have to work extremely hard to secure it. We can't just give up and say we are up against immovable forces and there is nothing we can do about it. Public awareness about the magnificence of elephants and their crucial ecological role in savannahs and forests will help and it is one of our main goals to make sure people know what the Earth would lose if elephants were to go extinct.

Please help us to spread the word.

With thanks for your concern and support,

Cynthia Moss
Amboseli Trust for Elephants
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Jemima's Albino Calf
The first ever recorded albino calf in Amboseli with mother Jemima
Two Albino Calves

After nearly 40 years of documenting elephant births in Amboseli we recorded the first ever albino calf in December. That was amazing and rare enough but now we have a second albino calf. Both are males. The second one was first seen on 29 January. What's happening?

Albinism occurs when both parents contribute genetically recessive alleles (genes), although there are some extremely rare forms when only one parent is responsible. An albino offspring can by produced by two non-albinistic parents and obviously this is what has happened in Amboseli.

We suspect that one of Amboseli's bulls, who has only recently reached the age of being able to successfully mate with females, is carrying the genes for albinism. In the cases were he has impregnated a female who also has the genes there is the possibility of producing an albino calf.

If the male is very active we could expect even more pale calves, but we hope not. Although albino animals grow normally and are generally healthy, they are in danger of skin problems including cancer. Elephants protect their skin from sunburn by mudsplashing and dusting, creating a kind of sunblock. Let's hope that these calves learn to do that quickly. In the meantime, they are seeking shade under their mothers.

We know it is possible for albino elephants to survive in the wild, and these calves were both born to experienced mothers. It is very tempting to imagine what they will look like when they are fully grown. We hope that Amboseli may be home to two magnificent "white" bull elephants in the future.

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2011: A 'Horrible Year' for Elephants - Harvey Croze    

Everyone by now has probably seen newclips summarizing the recent report from the IUCN TRAFFIC monitoring unit: An 'Annus Horribilis' for African Elephants, which for some odd reason, borrows a Latin epithet primarily from the Queen's 1992 Guildhall speech inspired by manifold family problems in the house of Windsor.

Back to elephants. TRAFFIC, drawing on the data gleaned by its ETIS (the Elephant Trade Information System), announced with refreshing candor for an intergovernmental organ, that '2011 has seen a record number of large ivory seizures globally, reflecting the sharp rise in illegal ivory trade underway since 2007.'
The report (which can be read here) makes the point that the number of seizures of illegal ivory jumped from an average of around four a year since 2000 -- bad enough considering the volumes of ivory concerned -- to a record high of three times that last year.

The final 2011 tally of 13 seizures amounting to 26,676 kg (52,200 lb) represents the deaths of at the very least 3,400 elephants.

But the picture is much grimmer. As the graph shows, the cumulative number of elephants killed to fill out the TRAFFIC decadal table is not less than 15,000 elephants killed since 2000.

International ivory seizures 2001-11 (black) and estimate of minimum cumulative total of elephants killed for the ivory (red).
And the real figure is probably several times that, since no one knows how many illegal shipments of ivory are NOT seized (a widely-held estimate: only 10% of illegal drug or endangered pet-trade shipments are intercepted, a factor that would suggest some 150,000 elephants could been killed over the decade).

Most illegal shipments, TRAFFIC acknowledged, end up either in Thailand or China, where the demand by the nouveau-riche is growing rapidly.

The premium price of illegal ivory is approaching the price of drugs, which, we have learned, are hugely difficult and expensive to control by police action alone.

The ONLY answer is to educate the billion-plus newly-moneyed consumers with the message that using ivory is supremely un-cool, and only elephants should wear ivory.

The History of the MA Family
 The MA family was first sighted and photographed on March 26, 1975. It appeared to be a small family, and therefore it should have been a simple group to work out, but it never was. There were six members present that first day including two adult females. It was not until six months later that I saw them again and got better photographs of them. Over the next six months and actually up until 1978 I struggled to figure out who belonged to the MA family.   

The problem was that the MAs were closely bonded to the WAs led by the matriarch Wendy. These two families seemed to be constantly interchanging members. Eventually I decided that there were three adult females in the MA family and I named them Mariana, Mabel and Marcia. Mariana was definitely the matriarch, acting as the leader and defender of the group. I estimated that she was born in 1945. Mabel was the next oldest, but considerably younger than Mariana, and thought to be born around 1957; and Marcia was the youngest, just
a teenager, born around 1960.
Mariana Leading Family
Mariana leading her family and the WA

In 1975 there was only one young calf in the family and this was a male belonging to Mariana. Just the tiny tips of his tusks were showing in November 1975, which indicated that he was about two years old and thus born in 1973.

There was also a juvenile male, 10-12 years old, who was thought to be Mariana's older son. He was given the number M118. Another slightly older male was sometimes with the family and sometimes not. It was difficult to say if he was definitely a member of the family. He was called M88.

To complicate matters further there were sometimes one or two other juveniles with the MAs. To this day I do not know if one of the young juvenile females was a true member who died before I knew her properly or a member of another family. One young female turned out to be Winnie of the WAs. Some of the other youngsters who associated with the MA family belonged to three other families that formed a bond group with the MAs.

I eventually discovered that the MAs were members of the largest bond group in the Amboseli population. Bond groups consist of families that appear to have a special relationship with one another. They spend more time with each other than with any other families in the population, and when they meet they greet with a particular ceremony, and when they are together they move together in a coordinated way. In total there were five families in this bond group: the MAs, WAs, VAs, LAs and CAs. The various members of these families were the source of my confusion over sorting out what originally seemed a small, neat family of six.

To read the whole history of the MA family go to the the ATE Website.
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Amboseli Book Chapter Summary: 1. The Amboseli Elephants, Introduction    

Chapter 1, The Amboseli Elephants: Introduction (C. Moss, H. Croze & P. Lee), sets the scene historically and in substance.  When Cynthia and Harvey each moved from their elephant work in Tanzania - with Iain Douglas-Hamilton in Lake Manyara National Park, and with the Serengeti Research Institute, respectively - they joined forces in 1972 to start a systematic study of the Amboseli population called the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, AERP.

There were fewer than 800 elephants back then. Thanks to the intolerance of Maasai inhabitants of the ecosystem to interlopers, the elephants had been relatively untouched by the poaching scourge of the 1970s. It appeared to be a perfect population for baseline studies on elephant social and reproductive behavior, and population dynamics.   The chapter lays out the three main elephantine threads of the book: longevity, size and intelligence, with a fourth dimension -  the future of the population in its ecosystem - looming in the background.

The threads define the special fabric of both AERP and the elephants themselves. Only a long-term project (which even so has only been working for just over half an elephant's potential lifespan), working with a population of known individuals, could capture the physical, developmental and social ebbs and flows of a large-brained, big-bodied, highly intelligent and communicative social animal. Imagine trying to capture the story of The Sopranos in just one episode. Impossible.     

Thus the editors and chapter authors decided to present a three-decade slice - from 1972 to 2002 - of the life and times of the Amboseli elephants, the longest studied and best known population in the world. Much of the information presented in the book is new, or newly analyzed, to augment and build upon the 100-plus peer-reviewed papers that form the AERP canon of scientific literature.

The first chapter features a house-keeping box with definitions of terms used throughout the book. We eschew the bovine term 'herd', and refer instead to 'groups': Cow-calf group, bull group, mixed group and so on. Everyone must know by now that the smallest elephant group is a family unit, led by a matriarch. Adult females come into estrus, nutrition allowing, and males have more or less annual periods of musth, during which high testosterone levels move them to compete for female attention.

The book is laid out in five parts. One establishes the ecological, temporal and human context of the population in an ecosystem that is larger by twenty times than the protected central confines of Amboseli National Park. Two details how the elephants make a living in the Amboseli habitat and the impacts on their population dynamics and distribution. Three comprises an exploration of elephant behavior and communications, rounded out with intriguing perspectives on cognition.  Four examines the complex nature of elephant society and the consequences for female and male reproductive success. And Five looks at the trials and tribulations of elephants in Amboseli's fast-changing human context, finishing with a look to the future of the elephants and the ecosystem.   
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As I put the finishing touches on this issue of the newsletter word has come from Katito of two more new calves, bringing the number to 100 calves born since mid-October. We've never had anything like this happen before. In the previous baby boom it took more than a year to hit 100. And we're expecting even more calves!

More than anything we want to assure that there is a future for these new lives. We need your support.

Cynthia Moss
Amboseli Trust for Elephants


To learn more about the Amboseli elephants go to:

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 February 2012 13:52

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