Lupita's Amboseli visit sheds light on study of elephants

PLAYFUL: Elephants play with each other
PLAYFUL: Elephants play with each other

After researching into the social behaviour of elephants in Amboseli National Park for four decades, biologists in 2011 made a remarkable conclusion: they’re really not so different from human beings.

They said communication amongst members of a herd is quite complex, bearing many similarities to a number of human tendencies and non-verbal cues. The elephants also flirt and wink at each other.

The Amboseli Elephant Research Project was the world’s longest study of elephants and formed an unparalleled body of knowledge on the life-history and behavior of African elephants. The results are published in the 2011 book The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal, published by Chicago University Press.

Four years later, when Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o visited Amboseli and spent three days with elephants last week, what struck her most was how close they are to human beings.

“It was my first time to really have an intimate experience with elephants. What struck me was how big they are, how quiet they are,” said Lupita.

Lupita was guided by Katito Sayialel, who has more than 20 years of studying elephants in the Amboseli.

He says elephants are not the monsters they are portrayed to be in human-wildlife conflicts. In fact, they are generally gregarious and form small family groups consisting of an older matriarch and three or four offspring, along with their young.

When they meet at watering holes and feeding places, they greet each other affectionately.

While at the park, Lupita said her new-found knowledge has led her understand elephants’ intrinsic value to human beings.

Lupita now joins soccer star David Beckham, actor Jackie Chan and Prince William among others to advocate for elephants globally with conservation group WildAid.

“I learned that elephants travel in family units led by three males and in Amboseli, they are named alphabetically for easy identification. I am so proud of my country’s heritage, part of that heritage being the incredible wildlife,” she said. “When you know more, it compels you do more.”

Usually only one calf is born to a pregnant female elephant. An orphaned calf will be adopted by one of the family’s lactating females or suckled by various females. Elephants are very attentive mothers, and because most elephant behavior has to be learned, they keep their offspring with them for many years.

Lupita said elephants are so gentle and were it not for natural threats such as man’s interference, they would most likely live full life of 65 to 75 years.

Lupita is spearheading a new campaign to stop the record slaughter of elephants for ivory.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species estimated that in 2013 more than 20,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory tusks. Last year the numbers were virtually the same. More than 60 per cent of carcasses surveyed across the continent in 2014 died at the hands of poachers.

Environment CS Judi Wakhungu lauds Lupita’s campaign, saying it will greatly help raise conservation awareness regionally and globally.

“It will help raise awareness why elephants are extremely important and it will also showcase the work that the country is doing to conserve our heritage,” she said in phone interview.

Wakhungu says this will particularly help cut the demand for ivory in far east while at the same time raise funds for conservation efforts.

Elephants have longer pregnancies than almost any other mammal carrying their calves for 22 months as compared to cows that only bear one calf every two to four years.

There reproduction rates are not sufficient to sustain population numbers at the current poaching rates, experts say.

Lupita also spent time at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Nairobi elephant orphanage, meeting with local conservationists and filming messages for international distribution in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, China, Hong Kong, Thailand and the United States.

These messages are designed to raise awareness of the elephant-poaching crisis.

Lupita also met with African Wildlife Foundation and Save the Elephants who partner on these projects, as well as representatives of Wildlife Direct, and Ol Pejeta and Lewa Conservancies — all active in combating poaching in Kenya.

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