Savannah elephants in Samburu

27 November 2011

Samburu, Kenya

A multitude of birds are chirping outside in the trees overlooking the river that snakes through this duo of national reserves in Kenya.  Samburu and Buffalo Springs sit almost squarely in the middle of Kenya. The landscape consists of low thorn bush, acacia trees, and a few grasses along the water’s edge.  Strange multi-branched “doum palms” line the riverbanks, looking a bit like coconut trees trying to evolve into something else in a hurry (see my friend Andreas Gros’ beautiful photo here). Faint blue outlines of hills rise in the distance.


I’m here to follow a bit in the footsteps of my supervisor, George Wittemyer, who started studying elephants at this site just over ten years ago. It’s now run by Save the Elephants. I am here to see how African elephants behave, to compare to what I see in Sri Lanka.  I’ll be tagging along with George’s graduate student, Shifra, whom I’ve already met in Colorado.

Savannah after a flush of rain.

I land on a quiet airstrip, in a 9-seater prop plane whose other occupants are a handful of tourists.  Unlike Amboseli, Samburu is not abuzz with safari goers, though there are some lodges nearby. I’m picked up by Chris, one of the long-time staff who has been with the project for seven years. Driving into camp from the airstrip we run into David, who has been with it fourteen years. These days both are more occupied with anti-poaching and other work than with elephant behavior though.  On this day they are bustling around shuttling supplies for an aerial survey that is being conducted this week, with about seventy participants.

We pass by some antelope, some giraffes, some prehistoric looking blue birds called guinea fowl that resemble something like a cross between a turkey and a quail, and a whole brood of ostriches with their beaks agape, sitting on a track. And of course, elephants. In Samburu, George’s naming convention is to group individuals in the same family into various categories – the Royals, the Virtues, the Spice Girls, the Clouds and so forth. We encounter two elements – the Winds and a few members of the Rivers.  They’ve come to the river to cool off. Chris maneuvers the vehicle right into their midst. They shake their heads and high step at us, making a funny noise that sounds like someone sticking their tongue out and blowing a raspberry. But they are otherwise unperturbed. Two teenagers on the river bank are scratching their chins, flopping their trunks around playfully.  Chris points out one of the Rivers, Euphrates, walks with a slight limp.  She’s been treated for a gunshot. There’s no noticeable swelling so it looks as though she will be alright.

I’m very interested to see the large herds of elephants that gather in wet seasons, which can consist of multiple families that move together.  It’s a phenomenon I have never seen in Uda Walawe and which may not occur much at all in Asian elephants. I hope I will be able to see lots of little interactions within these herds, and observe how individuals maintain their social ranks.  It’s going to be fun!

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