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Q&A with Dr Cynthia Moss… Amboseli’s elephant doyenne

Above: Elephant matriarch – Dr Cynthia Moss at the research centre in Amboseli National Park. 14 Aug 2020 Copyright Rupi Mangat

Cynthia came out to Africa from the US in 1968, first to Tanzania where she worked with Iain Douglas-Hamilton on his elephant project in Manyara.

In 1972, she started her project in Amboseli to study free-ranging elephants. And she hasn’t stopped. The eminent elephant researcher just celebrated her 80th birthday and is still busy at research mentoring the younger generation of researchers in elephant research.

Elephant family in Amboseli with Mt. Kilmanjaroi Copyright Rupi Mangat 2016

On any given day, she’s driving herself in her sturdy Land Rover in the greater Amboseli beyond the 392-square-kilometer Amboseli National Park following the…no need to guess…elephants, many she knows by name and has files on. I recently met her at her research center in the park and in an hour learned a whole load about the world’s largest mega-herbivore.

Cynthia is the founder of Amboseli Trust for Elephants and best-selling author of elephant lives.

Elephant herd with calves in swamp in Amboseli national park on 14 August 2020. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Q: Cynthia how do you keep your youthful look?

Cynthia: I guess it’s the elephants.

Q: Give us a little background to the elephants of Amboseli

Cynthia: The elephants of Amboseli are the longest studied free-ranging elephants in the world.

Q: 2020 has been a special year for elephants?

Cynthia: Yes. Elephants have a baby boom from time to time. The current one followed a baby boom in 2012 when 201 births were recorded. In 2020, we’ve recorded 170. In 2019 there were only 19 births recorded. So you can see how different years can be in terms of births.  

Mother and child in swamp in Amboseli national park on 14 Aug 2020. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Q: Why such a high number of births now?

Cynthia: It’s partly because of the rains. Conditions have been very good for the elephants. The park was flooded in 2018 and then there was more rain in 2019 between October and March 2020. And this time we have had two sets of twins, something that is very rare. The first time elephant twins were recorded in Amboseli was 1980. Thirty-eight later we recorded the second set. And this year we have the third and fourth sets.

NB: Amboseli is from the Maasai word empusel for salty dust. It’s a jigsaw of bare salt pans, grass plains, acacia woodland and the perennial swamps fed by the snows of Kilimanjaro that the animals thrive on.

Zebra and wildebeest in Amboseli National Park. 14 Aug 2020. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Q: That’s great. So we expect to see many more elephants around?

Cynthia: We’ll just have to see what happens.  If this is followed by a long drought, it may take its toll on the little elephants and others. In the drought of 2009 and 2010, 425 elephants died. Also during drought the females may stop breeding and some lose their babies.

Q: How many elephants are we talking about?

Cynthia: At any one time there are no more than 700 elephants in the park which is only 392 square kilometres. But the larger Amboseli that is over 3,500 square kilometres is home to 1700 elephants.

May 2012 A herd of elephants around a thorn tree, resting in .Amboseli. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Q: How do they survive outside the national park?

Cynthia: The elephants are here because of the Maasai now and in the future, as it has been in the past. They don’t necessarily love elephants, but they consider that they belong here. They believe that elephants are the only animals with a soul.

Q: Some exciting things you were the first to document about African elephants?

Cynthia: ‘Musth’. It’s when the males go into a heightened period of sexual overdrive charming females to mate. It had been documented in India and the term ‘musth’ applied to it. In Hindi the Indian language, ‘musth’ takes different connotations like boisterous, happy, frivolous and mischievous. The phenomenon had not been recognized in the African elephant until our study.

Q: And now?

Cynthia: We are now following elephant males starting from the age of 10 or 14 years. It’s when the young males leave the family and we lose contact with them. We don’t know what they are doing until they are around 30 years old and return to mate. It’s a lost gap.

Q: Oh…tell us more about that?

Cynthia: Eight young males have been fitted with GPS collars, one of the latest one on 12th August during World Elephant Day. He is Tim’s great nephew and named Lenku after the governor of Kajiado.

NB: Tim was one of Moss’s favourites. Aged 51 he died of natural causes in March. “He was a true gentleman,” recalls Moss. Tim was one of Africa’s last and largest ‘tuskers’, each weighing well over 50 kilogrames each. His remains will be preserved at the Maasai Heritage Museum in Amboseli.

Q: Why is this gap year important to know?

Cynthia: The information will tell us what kind of trouble they might get into such as crop raiding. That period from when they leave their families until they start competing for females is very important for learning not only where to go for the best food and watering places but also how to be an adult male elephant. The movement patterns from the satellite collars will help us map areas that need to be protected for these cross-border elephants. They are going much further then we knew, three of them to the other side of Kilimanjaro. One of those is now half way to Arusha.

This will also help map areas for the home bodies that don’t cross the international border but traverse the 3,500-kilometre ecosystem.

Rupi: Thank you so much for your time, Cynthia.

An Ear for Elephants

If you want hear more about the elephants of Amboseli by Cynthia at her research centre contact her via the web: https://www.elephanttrust.org/

It’s US$ 90 per person. Your money goes into supporting the amazing work of

Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

To Amboseli

Drive in via Emali through Iremito or Kimana gates (stop at the Maasai museum soon to be home to Tim the elephant).

The road via Namanga gate is murram and quite passable. It’s recently been graded..

There’s a new road via Kajiado, less traffic but 40km longer.

Ol Tukai Lodge facing the perennial swamp and Mt. Kilmanjaro has special resident rates. Log on www.oltukailodge.com

Driving time from Nairobi is 250 kms and five hours depending on traffic.

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