email a friend iconprinter friendly iconAfrica's Elephants
Page [ 3 ] of 19

A decade after this work began, we were on our way back to the park in our old Cessna 185, flying down the Great Rift Valley as red dust coiled into the sky. Lake Manyara came up like a silver spot, while all around the bare earth was blowing away. The lake was smaller than before, surrounded with salt. Manyara was in the grip of a drought—the third dry year in a row. We knew the elephants would be having difficulty finding food. Ten years before, the problem had been to cope with their destructive feeding habits—pushing over trees and stripping the bark. Now, with drought, the problem could be worse unless poaching had reduced their numbers.

On the lakeshore was a gray mass of at least 200 elephants gathered in the soft evening light, sunning themselves. Each family formed a distinct little group, all walking slowly in the same direction.

We touched down nearby on the sandy beach just as a battered Land-Rover approached. Out jumped Mhoja Burengo, the Tanzanian park ranger who has worked with Iain since 1966, welcoming us back with his wonderful smile. Because of difficulties in getting research clearance, our visits to Manyara had become only occasional since 1973, and Mhoja was doing most of the job of keeping an eye on births, deaths, and disappearances within the elephant community. He can still recognize many of the 400 individuals identified from 1966 on. He told us that poaching had killed many of the elephants, and drought had turned thousands of acres of the park’s lush foliage into a barren windswept land of skeletal trees.

Iain and I were particularly interested to find what had happened to the family of a one-tusker, Jezebel, who had died a year before. Elephant families are not led by bulls, who at puberty, about 13 years of age, are pushed out by the matriarchs, returning periodically to mate beginning around the age of 20. The family leaders are the experienced matriarchs, and so Jezebel’s successor was Curie, who was probably her sister, and not Valeria, her daughter. As her assistant leader, Curie had another matriarch named Hera, who once had a reputation for being extremely fierce.

On a visit two months before, in August, Iain discovered, to his amazement, that Valeria had given birth to twins, the first we had ever seen. They must have been about ten days old, both males. One had a straight tail and the other a crooked tail. The dominant twin was Crooked Tail; though slightly smaller, he pushed ahead of Straight Tail, establishing his position to walk right behind his mother.

The leading matriarch, Curie, had a four-month-old daughter named Pili, and Curie and Valeria were the only nursing mothers in the family. When the twins tried to get some milk from Curie, who had an agitated nature, she slapped them with her trunk, kicked and toppled them, and made them squeal. Only Yusta, the adolescent daughter of Hera, tried to comfort them, pushing them under her belly. Adolescent females often help in elephant families, giving the calves a better chance of survival and learning themselves how to act when they later become mothers.

Page [ 3 ] of 19