Samburu Elephants
Elephants of Samburu

As Earth's largest living land mammals, African elephants Loxodonta africana need a lot of space—and food—to thrive and breed. Today they live in 37 nations, but their exact number is unknown: There may be as few as 472,000 or as many as 685,000. Either figure is down from an estimated 1.3 million in 1979, when elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton organized an ambitious continental survey to gauge the status of the species. At the time, people in many countries in the range were starting to slaughter large numbers of elephants, mainly for the international ivory trade.

In the 1980s countries debated the need for controls on the ivory trade during a series of contentious meetings and bureaucratic battles that became known as the
Ivory Wars. Finally in 1989 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) outlawed the international sale of ivory.

Douglas-Hamilton, who first came to Tanzania from Oxford in 1963, has spent the past 11 years in Samburu National Reserve, a little-known jewel of just 65 square miles among protected areas on the semiarid savanna of northern Kenya. He leads a team of elephant researchers whose work centers on an 11,000-square-mile area of the Ewaso Ngiro River Basin they call the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem. About 5,400 elephants—the largest population that's mainly outside protected areas in Kenya—live within Samburu-Laikipia. Under the auspices of Save the Elephants (STE), a Nairobi-based research and conservation organization founded and run by Douglas-Hamilton, the researchers spend much time observing, recording, and analyzing the movements and activities of the roughly 900 elephants that use the Samburu reserve over the course of a year, either as residents or as short-term visitors.

STE's Samburu research encompasses every aspect of elephant life and death. According to Douglas-Hamilton, three fundamentals drive elephant behavior: sex, sustenance, and security. The elephants roam Samburu-Laikipia, little of which is fenced, in pursuit of all three. The researchers document encounters between elephants and people trying to grow food and raise livestock in and around the small sections where elephants are protected, and this information helps the Kenya Wildlife Service in making its wildlife-management and land-protection decisions. STE's research also makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of this intelligent and charismatic animal.

Quammen, David. "Family Ties: The Elephants of Samburu." National Geographic (September 2008), 34-63.

Stephenson, P. J. "WWF Species Action Plan: African Elephant 2007-2011." World Wide Fund for Nature, 2007

Blanc, J. J., and others. "African Elephant Status Report 2007: An Update from the African Elephant Database." Occasional Paper Series of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. No. 33. (2007).

Douglas-Hamilton, Iain, and Oria Douglas-Hamilton. Battle for the Elephants. Viking Penguin, 1992.

Save the Elephants.

Samburu County Council. Elephants of Samburu..

Sukumar, Raman. The Living Elephants. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Wittemyer, George, and others. "The Socioecology of Elephants: Analysis of the Processes Creating Multitiered Social Structures." Animal Behaviour (June 2005), 1357-71.

Elephants and Samburu's Acacia Trees

Long and rangy, the branches of tall acacia trees acacia elatior reach into the sky of the African savanna and spread wide in a canopy several feet above the ground. Their leaves are high on the list of foliage preferred by elephants in and around Samburu National Reserve. Depending on the season, the acacia's seedpods, bark, and even roots also form part of the elephants' diet. These huge plant-eaters are oblivious to the consequences—for good or ill—of their dining habits.

The seeds sown via the elephants' dung deposits as they search for food in and around the reserve eventually create new elephant food. But if, during the dry season, desperately hungry elephants rip off an acacia's bark, the elegant tree will die a slow death. Smaller trees can die fast—elephants often rip them out of the ground to strip the topmost branches of leaves and get at the moist roots.

At Samburu two projects have been launched to help preserve the acacias and involve the local community in conserving natural resources. Wire Trees and Bees and Trees are the brainchildren of Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who operates Elephant Watch Safaris in the reserve and is the wife of Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Both projects receive support from Save the Elephants.

Wire Trees is intended to protect acacias by wrapping chicken wire around their lower trunks. In 2001, when she first set up her Elephant Watch Camp in the reserve, Oria saw the familiar sight of trees stripped of their bark, especially along riverbanks, where elephants frequently came to drink and bathe. Having wrapped trees with wire elsewhere in Africa, she started wrapping acacias along a two-mile stretch of the Ewaso Ngiro River, which flows year-round—saving at least 70 of the trees from sure destruction. As she reports, "The trees are alive and well eight years later, providing food and shade for animals and birds in Samburu."

Local Samburu residents participating in the Bees and Trees project hang logs containing hives of African honeybees Apis mellifera scutellata from acacia branches about 15 feet above the ground. When elephants start stripping bark in the vicinity of a hive, the bees swarm, buzzing around the thick-skinned pachyderms and chasing them away from the trees. "Elephants are sensitive around their eyes, ears, mouths, and breasts, and very wary of bees," Oria says. "They will take off when the buzzing gets aggressive."

In return for their work, the residents get the honey and beeswax from the hives, both desirable products. So far, they've attached log hives to about 40 trees in the reserve and in nearby communities.

Lucy King, a Ph.D. student at Oxford, has expanded the Bees and Trees experiment by hanging beehives between the fence posts that protect smallholders' farms in areas surrounding the Samburu Reserve. This helps keep elephants from raiding the farmers' small vegetable plots, and farmers can use or sell the sweet treat created in the hives—making the tiny bees guardians of both the food supply and commerce.


Elephant Watch Safaris. "Saving the Trees of Samburu."

Save the Elephants. "Elephants, Bees and Trees Project."

Wilton, Pete. "Lucy King Talks Bees and Elephants." University of Oxford Science Blog, January 14, 2008.

Brown, Susan. "Bee Buzz Scares off African Elephants." National Geographic News, October 9, 2007.

What Spiders Taught Elephant Researchers

Fritz Vollrath, a zoology professor at Oxford, took insights he'd gained studying spiders' webs to the Save the Elephants research team tracking radio-collared elephants at Samburu National Reserve. Vollrath sees a spider's web as a "superb record of the arachnid's decision rules" made in constructing its "filigree aerial net" for trapping flies. He views each discrete decision made by the web's architect as vital to the web's capacity to ensnare the prey that will contribute to the spider's diet—and hence to its survival.

Vollrath thought the STE researchers, led by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, might be able to glean similar information from GPS maps showing the tracks taken by 20 collared elephants within the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem. He asked the researchers a series of questions, including, "Can track analysis be a way to get inside the elephant's head and see things with its eye?"

Stimulated by Vollrath's questions, the researchers saw that the elephants often seemed to race between distant points over brief periods, usually at night, usually alone, in what the researchers call "streaking" behavior.

Douglas-Hamilton is convinced that elephants have an awareness of the dangers in their surroundings and know when to streak through areas that provide minimal protection. The GPS data delivered by the collared elephants is revealing in other ways too. It shows, for example, that they're constantly making decisions about how and when to move along travel corridors between safe areas, where they have access to food and water. This wealth of information can be used to make decisions about wildlife management and land-use planning in the entire 11,000 square-mile study region.

Douglas-Hamilton, Iain, T. Krink, and F. Vollrath. "Movements and Corridors of African Elephants in Relation to Protected Areas." Naturwissenschaften. Vol. 92. (2005), 158-63.

Vollrath, Fritz. "Trunks, Tracks and Spiders' Webs." Oxford Today (June 12, 2007).

Save the Elephants. "Research Projects: Long-term Tracking in Northern Kenya."

University of Oxford Department of Zoology. Oxford Tracking Group: Publications.

Daballen, David. "Tracking Mountain Bull's Journey From the Imenti Forest to the Ngare Ndare Swamps." STE Research Reports (September 7, 2007).

Last saved: July 23, 2008

The Matriarchal Family

By George Wittemyer, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University

Among elephant families, it's the matriarch that leads the group and makes the critical decisions regarding where and when to move in search of the necessities of elephant life. As families grow, they commonly split along maternal lines, with grandmothers and their daughters and granddaughters typically remaining in close affiliation. In the Poetics, one of the best known families of the Samburu elephant population, sisters Sylvia and Emily have bucked this trend by remaining together, jointly leading the females in their family across the savannas of northern Kenya.

Elephant families typically number between seven and fifteen individuals—larger family groups often face the problem of too many mouths to feed, straining social relations until the elephants can no longer remain together as they roam across their range. Researchers following the Poetics over the past 11 years watched competition for resources cause such a split: Two of Sylvia's daughters left with their descendants to form their own family group. Yet Sylvia and Emily stayed together. Their closeness is obvious as they nap in the shade of the same tree or bathe in the same mud hole alongside the river. Though they have their disagreements regarding where and when to move, even separating occasionally to explore their own paths, they're inevitably together the next time they're observed. Among the intricate bonds that tie elephant society together, the strength and depth of the relationship between these two co-matriarchs is noteworthy.

Quammen, David. "Family Ties: The Elephants of Samburu." National Geographic (September 2008), 34-63.

Douglas-Hamilton, Iain, and Oria Douglas-Hamilton. Among the Elephants. Viking, 1975.

Moss, C. J. Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family. William and Morrow, 1988.

Wittemyer, G. "The Elephant Population of Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, Kenya." African Journal of Ecology. (December 2001), 357-65.

Wittemyer, G., and I. Douglas-Hamilton and W. M. Getz. "The Socio-ecology of Elephants: Analysis of the Processes Creating Multitiered Societies." Animal Behaviour. (June 2005),1357-71.

Other Resources
Save the Elephants.

Extended Family Relationships

By George Wittemyer, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University

Elephant social structure stands out in the animal kingdom because of its complexity and depth: Each elephant recognizes its place in a network comprising hundreds of individuals. The bonds between family members form the foundation for hierarchical relationships—an organization not unlike the nuclear family that serves as the center of our own social life, extending to work, play, and politics as well genetics.

While extended familial relationships have been recognized in elephant society since Iain Douglas-Hamilton conducted his early work on elephants in Tanzania in the 1960s, it is only with the use of GPS radio tracking technology that we’ve been able to visualize the intricacies of these relationships. Simultaneous GPS tracking of members of the Clouds and Storms families in Samburu allowed researchers to watch coordinated movements between these two families play out across their ranges, which are hundreds of square kilometers. The two groups spent about half their time in close affiliation, but on occasion would move in opposite directions, only to meet up later, far from where they’d started. The remote tracking offered an unprecedented view of the scale across which elephant social interactions take place.

As with complex human relationships, the drivers of these extended bonds among elephants appear to vary from genetic-based familial connections to strategically constructed coalitions offering advantages over individuals less tactically aligned. One of the most interesting repercussions of these social connections may be the propensity to adopt the orphaned calves of recently deceased friends and family. Just as local human communities take in the orphans of mothers who’ve died after a mishap with an elephant, groups of elephant family or friends take in the orphaned calves of mothers that have died at the hands of humans. This is why many matriarchs, like Saturn of the Planets or Rosemary of the Spice Girls, lead groups consisting of more calves than they could possibly have produced. Where life is fragile and constantly under threat, such behavior ensures that genes survive for another generation, but it also serves as a poignant reminder of the aid friends can offer.

Quammen, David. "Family Ties: The Elephants of Samburu" National Geographic (September 2008), 34-63.

Douglas-Hamilton, Iain. "On the Ecology and Behaviour of the African Elephant." Ph.D. thesis. University of Oxford, 1972.

McComb, Karen, and others. "Matriarchs as Repositories of Social Knowledge in African Elephants." Science (April 2001), 491-94.

Moss, C. J. Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family. William and Morrow, 1988.

Moss, C. J., and J. Poole. "Relationships and Social Structure of African Elephants." In Primate Social Relationships: An Integrated Approach, ed. R. A. Hinde. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific, 1983.

Wittemyer, G., and W. M. Getz. "Hierarchical Dominance and Social Structure in African Elephants Loxodonta african)." Animal Behaviour (April 2007), 671-81.

Wittemyer, G., and others. "Social Dominance, Seasonal Movements, and Spatial Segregation in the African Elephant: A Contribution to Conservation Behavior." Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. Vol. 61. (2007), 1919-31.

Wittemyer, G., Iain Douglas-Hamilton, and W. M. Getz. "The Socioecology of Elephants: Analysis of the Processes Creating Multitiered Societies." Animal Behaviour. (June 2005),1357-71.

Last updated: July 7, 2008

Elephant Management

While poaching and loss of habitat threaten elephants in eastern African nations like Kenya, conservation measures have been so successful in southern Africa that populations are booming: Some 300,000 elephants—one-half to two-thirds of all the elephants on the continent—are found there. A recent assessment of elephant management issues in South Africa notes: "As a consequence of the rising number of elephants … the ecosystems that contain elephants and the people that live adjacent to elephant populations are perceived to be coming under increasing threat."

Whether elephant numbers need to be curbed or reduced—and how this would be accomplished—is a matter of great debate. Public and private wildlife parks and reserves that face growing elephant populations have a wide range of management options. Some are passive, such as enlarging the range available to the animals, fencing to contain or exclude them, using repellents, controlling water supplies—or simply leaving elephants to "regulate themselves" though natural means like starvation and drought. Active methods include contraception and translocation—trucking surplus elephants out of overpopulated areas. Culling, banned by South Africa in 1995, was also put back on the table in May 2008 as a management option of last resort in that country, according to officials at the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

Lange, Karen E. "Desperate Measure." National Geographic (September 2008), 64-69.

Scholes, Robert J., and Kathleen G. Mennell, eds. Assessment of South African Elephant Management. Witwatersrand University Press, 2007.

Van Aarde, Rudi, and Tim Jackson. The Big Picture. Africa Geographic (April 2006), 76-79.

Cumming, David, and Brian Jones. "Elephants in Southern Africa: Management Issues and Options." WWF-SARPO Occasional Paper, no. 11. WWF Southern Africa Regional Programme Office, 2005.

Wines, Michael. "South Africa Considers Culling Elephants as Last Resort." New York Times, February 28, 2007.

Other Resources
Balfour, David, and others. "Review of Options for Managing the Impacts of Locally Overabundant African Elephants." The World Conservation Union (IUCN), 2007.

Towards a New Elephant Management Policy for South Africa (1995-2008). South African National Parks.

Elephant Home Range Report and other publications. Conservation Ecology Research Unit, University of Pretoria.

Owen-Smith, Norman, and others. A Scientific Perspective on the Management of Elephants in the Kruger National Park and Elsewhere. South African Journal of Science (September/October 2006), 389-94.

Van Aarde, Rudi J., and Tim P. Jackson. "Megaparks for Metapopulations: Addressing the Causes of Locally High Elephant Population Numbers in Southern Africa." Biological Conservation (January 2007), 289-97.

Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park

Since South Africa instituted its moratorium on culling in 1995, the elephant population in Kruger National Park has increased from 8,000 to more than 13,000 today, prompting officials to consider ways to manage overcrowding. Many experts favor a multipronged solution: Get rid of artificial water supplies, which allow elephants to survive droughts that keep populations in check and concentrate herds in one spot; take down park fences; and establish corridors and megaparks so that elephants can disperse across a larger landscape, reducing seasonal and long-term pressure on habitats.

The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park is a joint initiative that will link Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, Kruger National Park in South Africa, Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, and several other protected areas in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The idea is to protect ecosystems that cut across international borders. When complete, the total area of the transfrontier park will be more than 13,500 square miles.

On December 9, 2002, the three nations signed an international treaty to establish the park, and two days later part of the fence between Limpopo National Park and Kruger National Park was removed, facilitating the eastward movement of elephants and other animals across the international border. Since then, other fences have come down, allowing the animals to migrate west as well. It’s unlikely that all the fences will be removed: People living in Limpopo National Park, for example, have already complained about elephants damaging their crops, and some areas don’t have habitat that’s suitable for elephants. But the development of such transfrontier conservation areas can often, as one expert notes, provide a safety valve for species under pressure.

"Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park."

"Great Limpopo." Peace Parks Foundation.

"Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park." Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Republic of South Africa.

"The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park." South African Tourism.

Other Resources
Marton-Lefevre, Julia, and Saleem H. Ali. Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution. MIT Press, 2007.

Mittermeier, Russel A., and others. Transboundary Conservation: A New Vision for Protected Areas. Conservation International, 2005.

Other National Geographic Resources
Godwin, Peter. "Without Borders: Uniting Africa's Wildlife Reserves." National Geographic (September 2001), 2-29.

Chadwick, Douglas H. "A Place for Parks in the New South Africa." National Geographic (July 1996), 2-41.

Elephant Ivory Trade

Published in the March 2007 issue of National Geographic

About half of Africa's elephants—600,000 animals—died between 1979 and 1990. Most were slaughtered for their tusks. Though commercial trade in new African ivory was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989, demand continues. Some ivory is actually legal. In the U.S., for example, it's permissible to import ivory older than a hundred years as well as personal trophies brought back by individual hunters. But without proper documentation, it's hard to discern legal ivory from black market goods. "The best thing that people can do for elephants," says Luis Arranz, administrator of Chad"s Zakouma National Park, "is never to buy ivory." –Margaret G. Zackowitz


Zackowitz, Margaret G. "Dying for Ivory." National Geographic (March 2007), 154.

Other Resources

"Elephant Ivory Trade." World Wildlife Fund.

"The Poaching Problem." Public Broadcasting Service.

Nielsen, John. "Poachers Target African Elephant for Ivory Tusks." National Public Radio, January 2, 2007.

Wasser, Samuel K., and others. "Using DNA to Track the Origin of the Largest Ivory Seizure Since the 1989 Trade Ban." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (March 6, 2007), 4228-33.

Other National Geographic Resources

Brown, Susan. "Record Ivory Cache Traced to Zambia Elephants, DNA Shows." August 18, 2006.

Fay, J. Michael. "Ivory Wars." National Geographic (March 2007), 34-65.