Changing Planet

Family Strife

Mushara Waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia – Sunset began with a visit from Paula and Nadia and their fraction of the Athlete family. We saw them break the clearing from the southwest, and I rushed to get two of my volunteers out on their bunker observation rotation, but we were too late. They were coming in fast.

I made the call to drive out east of the waterhole to watch the sunset action from the vantage of a red pan. It’s been very gratifying to see that Paula has found a solution to her family strife from 2012 after giving birth to her calf, Bruce. She was under such extreme social stress from the rest of the family that it was looking like Bruce wouldn’t survive. When I saw her at the beginning of last season, having broken away from the family to form a small satellite group with Nadia, I was hugely relieved. Paula seemed much less stressed, and Bruce had a contemporary playmate in Nadia’s male calf. And now they are a stable cohort.

Paula and her small family take a drink at sunset. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Paula and her small family take a drink at sunset. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Why Paula experienced such aggression from the rest of her family is part of the mystery that we are hoping to solve in this desert environment of Etosha National Park. At what point is a family too big to be able to get enough to eat? Assuming that might be the reason for a fissure—optimal foraging theory dictating that there is a maximum size to a group beyond which the family might lose fitness because there just isn’t enough resources to go around—how does that happen within a group? Why was Paula the one chosen to be ostracized, and is optimal foraging theory the only possible explanation for this seemingly undue aggression within family?

After a quiet drink, Ursula of the Goddesses barreled in, displacing the small group and creating quite a stir as all of a sudden the horizon was moving with elephants from all directions filling the pan with elephants.

Ursula (on left with visible notch in left ear) displaces Paula and her small family. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Ursula (on left with visible notch in left ear) displaces Paula and her small family. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
The pan fills with thirsty family groups at sunset. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
The pan fills with thirsty family groups at sunset. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Ursula was close to us and we could see her march to the low-ranking position and give dominant members of low-ranking families a stiff poke, causing further chaos.  That was just as Big Momma’s large group came quietly past the tower from the northeast.

Big Momma passes the tower from the northeast on the way to the pan for a drink. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.
Big Momma passes the tower from the northeast on the way to the pan for a drink. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

We enjoyed the calm and tumult from our unique vantage and, after some time, we watched Big Momma’s family leave as quietly as they had arrived, surrounding our vehicle as if we were a stone in a gently flowing elephantine river. Big Momma stood right in front of us watching while nursing her calf as the family moved past, two young bulls sparring as they went.

In as much as we have witnessed some elephant families experiencing repeated strife within and between groups, others, like Big Momma’s, just seem to roll gently along as if above all the politics.

Dr. Caitlin O’Connell is a faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine and a world-renowned expert on elephants.  Her twenty years of research has resulted in numerous scientific publications and five popular books, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense. The Elephant Scientist won five awards, including both the Sibert and Horn Book Honors. An Elephant’s Life and A Baby Elephant In The Wild depict the complex social lives of elephants through images. The Elephant Don comes out next spring along with her debut novel, Ivory Ghosts. ELEPHANT KING, a documentary about her research, won the CINE Best Environment & Nature Award. Caitlin's research into seismic transmission and detection of elephant vocalizations has been funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration. For more information, visit her nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific website (utopiascientific.org) and her author site at caitlineoconnell.com. She and her husband, Tim Rodwell, write the tumblr blog elephantskinny.tumblr.com. Also follow her on twitter: Mushara Author photo credit: Max Salomon

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