ATE’s research arm, the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, has made many important contributions to elephant research over the years. The knowledge gained from the AERP team has profoundly altered the way we think about, conserve and manage elephant populations. Our research has highlighted the ethical implications of dealing with sentient, long-lived, intelligent and social complex animals and our knowledge base provides powerful and authoritative support to elephant conservation and advocacy campaigns worldwide. For more than four decades AERP’s presence has helped ensure the survival of the elephants as well as the Amboseli ecosystem.
AERP research covers many areas including: social organization, behavior, demography, ecological dynamics, spatial analyses and mapping, communication, genetics, human-elephant interactions and cognition. Our long-term datasets underpin all these research topics.
Our team of Kenyan research assistants and visiting scientists are in the field at least six days a week. We record all demographic events in the population; births and deaths, musth, oestrus and mating. Our routine daily observations note associations between family units and independent males, geographic location, group size, composition, activity and habitat type. Within families we monitor female affiliation and the dispersal of young males from their family to analyze family dynamics. We have systematically monitored the size and growth of over 600 individuals from 1976 to the present. Since 1999 we have collected dung samples for genetic analyses of population origins, paternity and within- and between-family relatedness. We are constantly maintaining and updating our individual records, and we also carry out basic ecological monitoring through vegetation plots, water table measurements and rainfall.
ATE hosts visiting researchers who contribute to the growing understanding of African elephants in general, and the knowledge base for the sustained future of the Amboseli population in particular.
Researchers interested in collaborating with ATE should address their enquiries to our Director of Science, Prof. Phyllis Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org). ATE has always enjoyed a dynamic collaboration network and we welcome the opportunity for new partnerships to continue that tradition. Our collaborations extend across many subject areas:
Communication is the glue that binds the social network of an intelligent species. Joyce Poole and Petter Granli recorded and analyzed Amboseli elephant vocalizations as part of the work of their NGO ElephantVoices. Their aim is to build our scientific understanding of the intelligence and social complexity of elephants and enhance the toolbox for their conservation and management. At the same time they act as a voice for elephants in a strong advocacy component. You can follow some of their work and activities on the ElephantVoices Facebook page. Other communication studies have focused on elephants’ capacity for individual recognition: Karen McComb pioneered the playback approach and demonstrated that each female elephant recognizes around 100 other females from voice alone.
Elephant Life Histories and Reproduction
Ongoing studies provide vital information on how elephants grow, mature and learn to cope with their physical and social environments. This work, guided by Phyllis Lee asks how longevity and developmental processes contribute to fitness and reproductive success. The four-decade-long Amboseli dataset is now yielding exciting insights into these questions; Phyllis’ work has recently demonstrated that early life experiences have survival and fitness consequences across individual lifetimes. The role of old, experienced females in guiding family decisions has become apparent: families with older matriarchs have improved calf survival and shorter inter-birth intervals for all females in the family. An extreme drought event in 2009 caused the death of many of these important leaders. Vicki Fishlock’s work, supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, aims to assess the social and reproductive effects of these losses. As a result of Vicki’s work, we are developing further studies into what leadership and negotiation means for elephant families.
Human-elephant conflict and co-existence
ATE is bringing its specialized knowledge of elephant behavior and society to bear on developing conflict-reduction strategies that are consistent with rural agriculture and Maasai livestock husbandry (see also Community Outreach). Work by Kadzo Kangwana, Christy Browne-Nunez, Patrick Chiyo and Winnie Kiiru has guided and developed our approach to conflict and coexistence.
Scientists from Duke University have mapped DNA profiles in order to define family relationships and origins of the Amboseli population. Cross-referenced to behavioral observations, the DNA analysis by Beth Archie examined survival strategies based on relatedness. Beth’s student Patrick Chiyo studied the socio-ecology of crop-raiding elephants using genetic techniques. Patrick’s work expanded to examine male association patterns and the impact of these on high risk activities such a crop-raiding.
Dick Byrne and Lucy Bates have examined elephants’ formidable reputation for memory and intelligence by investigating specific cognitive skills designed to probe elephants’ ability to manipulate and respond to their world and each other. Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon have expanded Karen’s early work on elephant communication and vocal recognition into the cognitive sphere by presenting elephants with a series of acoustic “threats” via playback experiments. Their studies show that elephants and discriminate and appropriately respond to varying levels of threats from lions and from humans, and that these abilities are strongest amongst experienced (older) elephants.
The long-term survival of elephants can only be assured by creating a niche for free-living elephants that is compatible with the needs and aspirations of the surrounding human communities. Elephants and humans have shared the Amboseli landscape for approximately 500 years. With the expansion of settlement, agriculture and livestock numbers inevitably encounters between people and elephants are increasing. ATE’s approach is aimed at maintaining the conservation ethos which has been part of Maasai tradition, but which is increasingly threatened by the pressures of 21st century human society.
Our field staff maintains daily contact with the surrounding Maasai community. This friendly interaction is essential to ensure that landowners maintain a tolerant attitude to the presence and passage of elephants on their group ranch land. We estimate that at any one time 80% of the wildlife in Amboseli is using community lands; without community participation there is simply no future for wildlife. Our approach is to allow a two-way exchange of understanding with communities. Concerns are aired in constructive dialogue, not in retaliatory killing of wildlife. We had proof of the value of this approach in 2012, when a local Maasai man waited for five hours beside an elephant calf trapped in a well. He patiently protected the little calf until he could reach ATE staff via an unreliable mobile phone network, and we then rescued the calf with the help of DSWT staff. Without this man’s care and respect, the calf, who we called Lemoyian, would certainly have died.
ATE has an innovative and successful consolation scheme to assist members of the community who lose livestock to elephants. Started in 1997 the program pays an owner of a cow, sheep or goat a set amount when an elephant kills any livestock on community lands. Previously, Maasai custom dictated an elephant had to be speared and killed in retribution for livestock deaths. The number of elephants speared dropped by more than half after the initiation of the consolation scheme. This scheme has since become a model in other areas and for other species.
Maasai Elephant Scouts
ATE operations outside the park include employing fifteen Maasai elephant scouts who patrol the ecosystem on foot, reporting elephant presence and signs, injured elephants and conflicts, as well as signs of poaching and the bushmeat trade. Their work is coordinated with that of the Amboseli-Tsavo Game Scouts Association (ATGSA) and the Big Life Foundation. The ATE scouts support our monitoring work by augmenting our elephant sightings data, especially during the wet season when elephants range widely. Scouts also assist in verification of consolation claims. Support to the scouts contributes to improved community participation and understanding of human-wildlife interaction as well as providing employment in a depressed rural area. We are also beginning a collaboration with the Lion Guardians programme to fund the work of two conflict mitigation scouts, at the request of the Kaputei community.