The Makings of a Matriarch

Published on the 30th of April, 2020

This month, I wanted to share a facet of our orphaned elephants that leaves me feeling full of hope and marveling at their wondrous ways. I hope it brings a light to your corner of the world, too.

While the global crisis has certainly impacted our day-to-day here in Kenya, our work in the field continues at full capacity — as it must. There are orphans to feed, swathes of wilderness to patrol, wild lives to save.

We all can use more joy in our lives, especially during difficult times like these. So, this month, I wanted to share a facet of our orphaned elephants that leaves me feeling full of hope and marveling at their wondrous ways. I hope it brings a light to your corner of the world, too.

- Angela Sheldrick

The Makings of a Matriarch

My father, David Sheldrick, said it best: “The more one knows about animals, the more one realises how much we still have to learn." I have spent my entire life around elephants, yet they continue to astonish me in the very best way. One might think that, after working long days and sleepless nights by their little charges’ sides, our Keepers — many who have been with us for decades — might have also discovered all the secrets that elephants hold within them, but that is not the case. We have witnessed the orphans we have raised from infancy behave in remarkable ways and accomplish extraordinary feats. Put simply, they never cease to amaze us.

Over 160 of our orphaned elephants are now living wild, many with their own babies by their sides, and each one has a story of survival that began on the fateful day that left them orphaned. They come from all over the country, separated from their biological families in devastating circumstances. Directly or indirectly, most of our elephants were orphaned at the hands of humans. Their trauma is often both physical and psychological, as elephants are deeply feeling creatures and don’t soon forget the families they lost. And yet, all of our orphans have opened their hearts to both their human Keepers and fellow elephant orphans, forming tight familial bonds that last a lifetime.

The success behind our orphans is undoubtedly due to the determination and courage of one woman. Raising an orphaned elephant is a long and often very fraught journey. Nature has made infant elephants more fragile than most, and it took many years of trial and error for my mother, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, to crack the code. Helping these young elephants navigate their formative, milk-dependent years was the first challenge. Then she was confronted with the next, monumental obstacle: How could we return these elephants to the wild where they rightfully belong, mindful that in order for them to be fully accepted by the wild community, they needed to be emotionally stable and well-versed in the natural ways of elephants. We could do our best to love and nurture these highly intelligent creatures when they were babies, but their transition to the wild presented a whole new set of challenges that could not be taught by any human.

Of course, Daphne was never daunted by a challenge. She understood that an elephant’s life mirrors our own, but these were lessons that she could not impart herself. The orphans needed to learn elephant ways from their own kind. And that is where the next miracle in a series of universal marvels stepped in, in the form of Eleanor. Born in 1959, she was orphaned — likely at the hands of poachers — before her second birthday, which is when she entered our lives. Simply put, Eleanor was a god-send. It was as if she knew Daphne needed her help for this next phase. Instead of going wild with the orphans Samson and Fatuma, she chose to remain with us for many years once she was grown. It was as if her motherly instincts kept her by Daphne’s side, and she served as a crucial mentor who paved the way for other orphans to follow.

Eleanor eventually heard the call of the wild, but not before making an indelible impact on our Orphans’ Project. Helping other elephants through that transitory stage could not have happened without her initial help. Ever since, we have been blessed with a rota of remarkable females who have stepped up and served as mentors to the orphans who are following in their footsteps. Even when they’re toddling around the Nursery, certain females feel the instinct to take over where their human family cannot possibly fill the void. In the wild, baby elephants are raised in a cocoon of love. Mothers and nannies wrap their trunks around a calf’s belly, over its shoulder, under its neck, often touching its mouth. It’s a beautiful, joyful, communal affair — and these are all behaviours we also observe from the more maternal members of our orphan herd. It’s as if they know that younger orphans thrive on tactile affection, and they provide it in abundance.

Behind every successful elephant dynasty, you will find a wise matriarch who carries a treasure trove of knowledge. They have a unique influence over group decision-making, and, like our own leaders, the most successful may even possess certain personality traits. This is very much the case for wild elephant herds, but how could we account for the way in which our orphans form their own herds and not only survive, but truly thrive? Seeing our ex orphan herds blossom under the leadership of a chosen older female, be it Yatta or Emily or Mbegu, we cannot help but wonder, ‘what are the makings of a matriarch?’ How do our orphans select their chosen leader when it is not genetically ingrained, and what defines her? The selection of our ex orphans’ elder stateswomen seems to naturally unfold, but we have found that it is usually one of those doting female figures who emerged during the Nursery stage, and who seems to possess those crucial leadership qualities from the outset. Perhaps it is in their genes, or perhaps it is formulated over years of cultivating a compassionate ‘personality’ (to assign them that anthropomorphic quality) towards other elephants.

In the face of natural adversity, our ex orphans show their true mettle. When a brutal drought gripped much of Kenya in 2017, elephants struggled enormously. We worried about how our ex orphans would fare, but we needn't have: Emily and her ex orphan herd made for the ranch-lands adjacent to Tsavo East National Park, which still had ample vegetation to sustain them until the rains broke many months later. This was a journey of over 100 kilometers each way, but all the members of Emily’s herd persevered — with Ndara’s newborn baby, Neptune, underfoot no less! When they showed up at our Voi stockades later that year, they were in remarkably good health and spirits.

We cannot underscore what a monumental achievement this was. Emily who was just 24 years old at the time. She was also orphaned as an infant, and thus never had the opportunity to inherit wisdom from older family members. Despite this, she managed to negotiate a dry season which tragically claimed the lives of over 400 elephants in just a few months, succeeding where much more experienced individuals were not so lucky. We could not help but marvel at the intuitiveness of our ex orphans and Emily’s ability to lead and make those crucial decisions, which at the end of the day can mean life or death for a herd.

It is not unusual for our orphans to be in the company of wild friends and in the green seasons, Emily and her herd of independent orphans can be found absorbed within the ranks of huge aggregations of elephants, wild herds numbering close to 800 individuals. Over the years, our ex orphans and matriarchs have developed these crucial close relationships with wild friends — and these friendships play a key role in how our orphans learn the ropes as they navigate Tsavo’s vast landscape.

It is important to remember that our ex orphan herds are not of a natural composition. They are not composed of an elder, mothers, aunts, sisters, and babies. Instead, they are led by an elected matriarch, chosen based on her leadership qualities and personality, and ‘adopted’ sisters of a similar age. Eventually, their herds get bigger, as they successfully mate and have their own wild-born babies tottering about their feet. While their transition to the wild is seamless, our ex orphans never forget their origins: Just as Eleanor did all those years ago, they come back to mentor the younger orphans. When it is time to help them make the transition towards a more independent life, it is our ex orphans who perform the all-important task of taking their younger counterparts under their wings, providing the bridging oversight as they fraternise with wild herds.

We are very excited about what the future holds for our many matriarchs in the making. Every day, we witness remarkable stories unfolding across all our units. At Umani Springs, Lima Lima has stepped up as a proxy matriarch who exacts the wishes of Murera, who is the herd’s older, physically compromised matriarch. Ever since her earliest days at the Nursery, Mbegu has been a force to be reckoned with, and although she is now one of the younger members of the Voi herd, she has already emerged as a clear leader. In Ithumba, females like Olare continue to show their leadership acumen. While a tragic twist of fate left each of these elephants orphaned, they persevered and emerged as extraordinarily capable matriarchs with all the natural skills and wisdom required. That, to me, is the greatest miracle of all.

Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.

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