Category Archives: 2. Field News Kenya

The elephant in the well – Kibo and his new life

In February we told the story about the baby elephant that fell into a man-made well west of Kilimanjaro, and how she ended up at the elephant orphanage at The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi.

You may read what we just posted on ElephantVoices, and see the video from the rescue either there or below. Sometimes a bad situation ends up ok – even though I’m sure Kibo is still missing his family!

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Matriarch and world renown Echo dies

It is very sad that Echo, the Matriarch of our primary study group in Kenya, has died. She has been the leader of her family for over 36 years and through all of the research, books and media attention that has focused on her, she has become an icon for elephants. You can read the message from ATE Director Cynthia Moss here.  Our thoughts are with Echo’s family – as this will be a disturbing time for them – with Cynthia, Soila, Norah, Katito and Robert in Amboseli, who have kept up with Echo’s daily life for so many years. All of us who knew Echo have been touched by her gentleness and wisdom, and many of us have sought solace in her presence during difficult times.

Echo has been mentioned in a few posts here on WildlifeDirect. Whenever we think of the Amboseli elephants, we think of Echo. During our field visit in December 2007 – January 2008 we did worry about Echo – since she looked thin and weak – and we are convinced that the ongoing drought has contributed to her demise.

We feel priviledged having been able to spend so much time with this gentle, caring, and wise elephant, who has been such an excellent leader for the EB family for decades.

Listen to the voice of Echo in a Let’s Go Call:

Echo and Emily Kate
Echo and Emily Kate in January 2007


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Thank you for your continued interest in the 1,500 elephants of Amboseli – Echo will live on as a symbol of them.

Kind wishes, Joyce and Petter

Notes from the field – from Blake

One of the few bright spots in this uncommonly dry February that we find ourselves in, has been being able to observe a certain young elephant by the name of Cathy. Although only ten years old, Cathy has consistently displayed the characteristics of a future matriarch. Every time we come across the CB family, which she belongs to, she immediately catches our attention with her antics. She is exceptionally loquacious and has especially taken an interest in being an allomother to all of the calves in the family.

Any time there is a skirmish amongst the calves, Cathy is sure to be found pacifying both parties until all is calm again. Aside from her innate motherly qualities that she regularly displays, it is her assertiveness that truly defines her. She is the first to greet arriving family members, she already gives “Let’s Go” rumbles to move the family along, and she can often be seen giving “Contact Calls” to get in touch with distant family members. This may not seem too significant, but let me remind you that she’s 10! This family has many older, dominant females and yet this young, precocious female has shown matriarchal attributes that far exceed her years.

Until next time!

Cheers, Blake (Murray)

Members of CB family
Cathy with three calves from the CB family.  She is the largest one, second from the right. (Photo: Blake Murray)

Amboseli elephants dusting
Amboseli elephants dusting (Photo: P. Granli)

Amboseli elephant baby stuck in well – and to orphanage

After a early morning recording session last week Blake and I were told by our ATE research assistant Katito Sayialel that an elephant baby was reported stuck in a well west of Amboseli National Park. We decided to go together, and followed behind the cloud of dust from the Amboseli Elephant Research Project vehicle. Despite lots of “shadows” in terms of cellphone contact with the maasai that had called the AERP team it didn’t take long before we found the right location a few meters from the Tanzanian border. Helpful maasai with cows and donkeys were all around, and told us that the baby had been in the well and struggling since last night.

To get a 400 pound elephant baby out of a well is not a piece of cake. And one thing is to get it up, another is to avoid ending up in the middle of an upset elephant family when the baby cries for help. Katito decided that we should try to look for the baby’s family, to find out how realistic it would be to get the baby back to them after a rescue. She also got in contact with Kenya Wildlife Service, to get their advice and assistance.  Baby in well
The well was not deeper than 1,2 meter, but deep enough to make it impossible for the less than one year old baby to get out.

Blake recording
Since Blake’s job for ElephantVoices during a 10 week field stay is to record rare calls, we had to try to get the low and very sad-sounding complaints from the baby on our Nagra digital recorder.

After having tried for quite some time to locate the family, and fearing that the baby could get serious injuries by the numerous attempts to get up, we had to take a decision what to do. Katito had already been in contact with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (their Orphans Project) in Nairobi, and they were ready to come and pick up the baby by plane. We decided to lift the baby carefully up with ropes around the belly together with our maasai friends. Next step was to get him into the back of our rustic Landcruiser – the first elephant passenger ever… Luckily we had a foam-pad (normally used as camera support) to provide as head-rest.

Baby in toyota
The baby was for natural reasons exhausted when finally out of the well, and quickly fell asleep when safe and sound in our field vehicle. In the photo we’re at the Amboseli airstrip waiting for Sheldricks people.

The baby was well fed and looked strong and not too uneasy when arriving at the air strip, and an hour afterwards she was on the way to the orphanage in Nairobi with the very experienced Sheldrick staff that came to pick her up.

I’m of course not happy at all that a baby elephant got separated from her family – but I do think what happened was the best solution considering the circumstances. That Blake and I had a very different day from what we expected is part of our story. We’re crossing our fingers for the baby from the well.

Cheers, Petter

Short update from dusty and windy Amboseli

Amboseli carries all signs of being dry – in the afternoons dust often sweeps over us as grey or brownish fog. There is not much green gras to see, not much to feed on. Several days we have seen rain in the near by slopes of Kilimanjaro, and Loitokitok 1 hour away experienced this week much more rain than what’s normal for this time of the year. Unfortunately most things previously planted have already died – the rain came too late.

The elephants are less active and talkative in a period like this, which is not great in terms of what we’re trying to achieve within our communication study. They are hot and have less energy, but thanks to the Amboseli swamps they are doing relatively fine everything considered. Unstable weather often leads to heavy winds, which our sensitive microphone is not very pleased with. Blake and I are in any case happy to collaborate with the very competent research assistants in the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, both Norah Njiraini and Katito Sayialel have been “in action”.
Photo Blake Murray and Norah Njiraini
Blake Murray and Norah Njiraini in the Amboseli Elephant Research camp.

Amboseli elephant with baby
There are many babies in Amboseli these days – which indicates that 2006 and 2007 where years with enough rain and food. But times are harder now – even though dusting feels good for elephants even in the best of times.

At night we very often hear lions – several are staying near by and sometimes walk so we can see them from the camp during day time. And in and around the camp numerous animals are having a peaceful time feeding on what’s left, they continue to know that we are friends. Outside my tent opening a buffalo is looking at me 8-10 meters away, when I walk over to the dining tent a couple of zebras hardly move out of the path.
Amboseli lion
Male lion resting near by entrance to camp – currently getting all the food that he wants thanks to others being hungry and weak.

Last Wednesday ended up very different and more dramatic than expected – since we had to follow AERP’s Katito to find an elephant baby that was reported having fallen into a well. I will tell you some more, and share a couple of photos, in a couple of days. Right now other tasks need my attention.

Have a great Sunday!

Cheers, Petter 

Some personal notes from day 1 in Amboseli – 22 January

Thursday started with the BIG shopping – going off to the bush for weeks one has to stock up quite a bit. There are no shopping malls anywhere near Amboseli; a weekly supply of vegetables from Loitokitok (one rough hour drive away) and goods brought down with others coming to Amboseli is what we have to rely on.

The drive from Nairobi to the border town of Namanga takes a couple of hours. Some amazing road construction going on over quite a long stretch from Kajiado indicates that the main road to Tanzania will soon again see better days. Having been built properly in the first place this particular stretch of the road has been good for a long, long time, but it is finally falling apart. The ongoing re-construction done by Chinese road builder is, therefore, urgently needed.

I had heard that the road from Namanga to Amboseli National Park’s Meshanani Gate was terrible, but since it had obviously been graded quite recently Blake (Murray) and I experienced an unusually smooth ride. Having just done (more) major repairs on our field vehicle I was relieved to find the road in such good shape.

We brought fresh newspapers (with Obama all over, of course) to Soila and the gang in ATE’s field office, and continued on to the camp. A hot shower rinsed off sweat and dust from a hot journey. It was great to be back again, even though it is very sad to see how extremely dry Amboseli is. The photo below is from our stay in January 2008, but we’re going to see even more dust, dust devils and dusting elephants in the coming few months before we (hopefully) get rain.  Amboseli Elephants dusting
Through a “dongle” connected to the computer I can, for the first time, be online from our (Joyce’s and my) tent –  but the question remains if this is really what I want considering the huge number of incoming mails…which reached closed to 60 yesterday. Anyway – it gives me the option of staying in touch with my family, friends and WD visitors – which is good!

It was blowing hard Thursday night, and it was cold sitting by my desk. To stay warm I tried getting into bed with the laptop … 2,5 meters away ….but that was enough for it to switch to a Tanzanian cellphone-provider. I was forced back to my desk, to avoid roaming.

After I dealt with some urgent emails I went back to my current book, “The Crunch” (guess what it is about), fell asleep, and woke up in the middle of the night with a couple of grumpy old buffaloes in the swamp just in front of the tent and several elephants noisily feeding on the palms surrounding the tent. A little bit further away lions were roaring – a couple of days ago they chased a baby warthog through the camp and into the bushes. It has not been seen since.


Greetings from a sunny and very dry Kenya

While Joyce is back in Norway preparing for her appearance in the legal case against Ringling Brothers Circus, and dealing with other pending elephant-issues, I continue my stay here in Nairobi. I am keeping busy working on our website update and our databases with IT-experts Mark and Fred, and trying to get our field vehicle in shape for the next few months of field work – a continuous job!

In the middle of next week I leave for Amboseli with Blake Murray. Over the next 10 weeks Blake is going to be assisting with ElephantVoices’ communication research by collecting acoustic recordings and video of some of the rarer calls. After a two week intro period with me he will be in the good hands of the very competent ATE research staff members, Norah Njiraini and Katito Sayialel.

Right now Blake is with Joyce in Norway being prepared for his time in Amboseli and picking up the recording equipment, datasheets and so on. Blake, who is currently a student at University of Utah, worked with us for a couple of months in 2003. You will be hearing more from us in the field.
Blake and Petter with the BBs in Amboseli in May 2003.

Based on normal rainfall patterns this time of the year usually represents a productive work period for collecting elephant vocalizations. But this year may be different. Due to the severe drought elephants are likely to be more subdued and just focused on getting enough to eat.

The short rains failed over most of Kenya, which is a troubling fact for millions of Kenyans. The political upheaval last year really had an impact on food production in the country and having the rains fail sets people even further back. Millions of Kenyans are currently faced with hunger – making human elephant conflict even more acute.

Despite the drought, I really look forward to being with the Amboseli elephants again, and we are all hoping for good rains in March and April.


ElephantVoices and Kenyan web-developers – appeal for support

I can now say “jambo” or “habari” here from Nairobi, where I arrived Friday night after a pleasant flight from Europe with KLM. I used the many hours of travelling to prepare for several meetings in Nairobi during the coming week. Unfortunately, I will not be visiting our AERP colleagues and elephant friends in Amboseli on this 10 day trip.

My first job yesterday morning was to collect our field vehicle, a strong and rustic looking (read: beaten up) ’93 Toyota Landcruiser, from a workshop in Karen, Nairobi. The 4-wheel-drive has been there since we left in the middle of January, and three months and kshs 141,740 (approx. USD 2,300) later it’s back on the road. Some of you may remember our appeal in December – sadly the bill ended up worse than we feared especially considering the substantial costs that we incurred even during our last stay. Being a car on Kenyan roads is no joke… Hopefully, the car the elephants know so well won’t give us any trouble for a long time!


One of the many other tasks I have is to work with a Kenyan web- and database-programmer who we hope will become a close collaborator of ElephantVoices. We have several databases that we want to get online in the next few months – one of which is our long-awaited elephant calls database. Kenya has a large contingent of clever IT-people, and we always try to use local partners in our work. Support for Kenyans is especially important right now. The economy and people’s livlihoods are really suffering as a consequence of the unrest and the collapse in the tourism industry following the December 27th election.

We are very grateful for any support toward our use of Kenyan programming capacity to get our elephant calls database online – so that you all can listen to elephant sounds and learn more about how they communicate. While I admittedly enjoy computer-work and html-coding, the efficiency of ElephantVoices depends on our ability to have high focus on the many elephant-related issues lined up. ElephantVoices and WildlifeDirect are only two of many channels through which we are trying to reach out.

Thank you for following our work!


How can you tell when an elephant is listening?

To study elephant communication it is crucial to understand the body language of elephants – for these are clues to what might happen next. Petter and I are pretty good at anticipating what elephants are about to do and have built up a database on our website ElephantVoices, where you can learn all about the signals, postures and gestures of elephants. We are currently updating this database so you may want to keep an eye out for new additions.

One of many important cues we use is watching for listening behavior. Since elephants can communicate over long distances, and since some of their communication is inaudible to us (but audible to the elephants), this behavior is a cue that the listening elephant has heard something, or someone, and might call in answer.

So what are the cues we use to tell that an elephant is listening? An elephant rarely stands stock still except when listening or resting; usually some part of the body, ears, trunk, tail is in motion. A resting elephant relaxes it’s head and ears allowing its head to hang below its shoulders and its ears to flop forward. A listening elephant, on the other hand, stands with its head raised and its ears lifted and slightly extended. The body and extremities of a listening elephant suddenly stop moving, and it simultaneously raises its head and stiffens its ears. Sometimes an elephant may turn its head from side to side in an attempt to localize a sound.

Have a look at these photographs of listening elephants.

Three-Holes listens

Three-Holes listens.

A juvenile female and two calves raise their heads suddenly as they hear a sound of interest.

A juvenile female and two calves raise their heads suddenly as they hear a sound of interest.

Beckwith listens after calling to her family.

Beckwith listens after calling to her family.

An adult female listens, and turns her head from side to side attempting to localize a distant call.

An adult female listens, and turns her head from side to side attempting to localize a distant call. Put on your headphones and listen to the sound linked below. You will hear a distant elephant calling, followed by an answer from the listening female. Play sound. Hopefully it works for you – we are currently having some problems setting up media files on the blog.
Musth male, Solonga, listens in for the sounds of distant females in his search for mates.

Musth male, Solonga, listens in for the sounds of distant females in his search for mates.

It always feels great to make progress!

Petter and I have been making real progress on a project that we have wanted to accomplish for a long time. Inspired by recent WildlifeDirect donations we bought ACDC Pro 2 – a photograph manager and database. For years we have struggled to locate particular photographs among the tens of thousands of images we have in our collection. Now we are going through all of them, putting them into categories and giving them key words so that we can easily search for an image and locate it later. This is especially important for updating our online database on elephant displays and behaviors, but also for putting together lectures and even for bringing you a specific image to illustrate an event, behavior or individual.

Furthermore, we have recently completed a searchable elephant ID database for the Amboseli Elephant Research Project. Just now I was struggling to remember the names of two elephants in a photograph taken at some distance. I could just make out that one had a flap-cut on her right ear. So, I keyed in “female, flap-cut middle right ear” and searched through the 15 or so individuals who came up and, presto: the two females were Kaliope and Keely of the KB family! I do love it when things work!

We will continue to upload photos to WildlifeDirect – hopefully for you to enjoy.

Thank you Muriel T for your 50$ donation!