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Nalakite: The story of a Maasai Mara matriarch

By Gini Cowell, Elephant Aware, and Joyce Poole and Petter Granli of ElephantVoices This is a tale about a beautiful and gentle matriarch from the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Her lack of tusks and the ‘flap-cut’ notch in her left ear make her easily recognizable, even to the most inexperienced observer. Rangers, working for Elephant Aware...

By Gini Cowell, Elephant Aware, and Joyce Poole and Petter Granli of ElephantVoices

This is a tale about a beautiful and gentle matriarch from the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Her lack of tusks and the ‘flap-cut’ notch in her left ear make her easily recognizable, even to the most inexperienced observer. Rangers, working for Elephant Aware in the Siana area of the Mara, named her Nalakite (pronounced Nalakité), meaning slow, humble or gentle in Maa, the Maasai language.

We are sharing her poignant story as it represents some of the challenges faced by people and elephants in the Mara ecosystem.

Nalakite is the mother of three calves, two sons aged twelve and eight, and a daughter two years old. They are well known to Gini Cowell and the rest of the Elephant Aware team, as well as to Joyce Poole and Petter Granli of ElephantVoices. A greater audience knows Nalakite, too. She made an appearance in the National Geographic film, “Little Giant”, filmed by Bob Poole. And Joyce helped to create a clip of Nalakite (you need to navigate via the interactive window to the left on the page to find the video, or try via this link and her sons for an HHMI science education bio-interactive on animal communication.

Nalakite is special to us because we happen to know her well – she and her calves have touched our lives. In truth, she is an ordinary Mara mother, and the story of her and her offspring is representative of many elephants across Africa.

Nalakite and her three calves, two males aged 8 and 12, and her youngest calf, a 2 year old female named ‘Nalakite Mdogo’ or ‘Little Nalakite’.

A mother of three fighting for her life

In February, this year, we (Elephant Aware) watched Nalakite lead a group of about 30 elephants. She was looking healthy and strong as she fed contentedly from surrounding vegetation with her calves close by.

On 10th September, Elephant Aware Ranger Kitumi was on a routine foot patrol with his unit when he spotted a group of four elephants and identified them as Nalakite and her three calves. The rangers noted that Nalakite looked emaciated, and Ranger Kitumi reported the news back to the rest of the team. We immediately drove to Nalakite. Her face was gaunt, her ears had turned a pale, sickly hue, and, in front of her sharply pointed pelvic bone, her ribs were clearly visible. She had a circular wound on her left flank, from which pus oozed.

We sent photographs of Nalakite to Dr. Limo and his colleagues at the Mara Vet Team (supported by the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Sheldrick Trust), who agreed that she was in imminent danger. The veterinary team was, however, attending to another case elsewhere in the Mara ecosystem, forcing us to postpone any action until the following morning.

Nalakite’s helping hands

When the vet team arrived and assessed Nalakite, they were hesitant to anaesthetize her, due to her feeble physical state. The drug commonly used to immobilize elephants is etorphine – an extremely powerful sedative. There is a risk with elephants as weakened as Nalakite, that once revived they will not be able to get back on their feet. On the other hand, it was also apparent that, without veterinary intervention, Nalakite would surely die.

By noon, Nalakite had been successfully immobilized, her wound had been cleaned, and she had been administered antibiotics, vitamins, as well as painkillers. Dr. Limo gave her the revival antidote, but as agonizing minutes ticked by, Nalakite could not get up. Eventually, we were forced to pull her to her feet using strong ropes, and many helping hands. All the while, it was necessary to keep her three calves at bay as they ran frantically around the scene, frightened and confused over the whole situation. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief once Nalakite was standing and reunited with her young ones.

Close inspection of Nalakite had revealed that her wound had been caused by a spear and was severely infected. The veterinary team also confirmed that she was anaemic. They gave Nalakite a 50-50 chance of survival, not high, but higher than before the treatment. We willed her to survive; she just had to.

Diminishing space and food for elephants

Nalakite was a victim of what is commonly called Human-Elephant-Conflict, or “HEC”. Her condition had deteriorated primarily due to her infection, though the ongoing drought in the Mara region and the absence of grass, due to overstocking of livestock, had exacerbated her decline.

Nalakite’s individual struggle highlights a far greater problem that elephants face across the African continent: They are quickly running out of space. In the Mara ecosystem large communally-owned swathes of land have been carved up, devoid of any zoning, into small privately-owned plots. Spatial planning prior to the privatization and sub-division could have prevented many of the negative consequences. Instead, an eruption of new fences and settlements has resulted in a rapidly changing landscape, blocking historical elephant habitat and migration routes.

In an effort to protect key corridors for elephant movement and to stave off the impending conflict, ElephantVoices, Save the Elephants, Mara Elephant Project and the Kenya Wildlife Service collaborated on a report, Mara ecosystem connectivity: Information on elephant population status and movements for spatial planning and conservation in Narok County, published in April 2016. The report draws on Save the Elephant’s elephant satellite tracking data and on elephant sightings collected by ElephantVoices, Elephant Aware and other contributors, and pinpoints the urgent need for precautionary measures to be taken, due to the growing pressure on the ecosystem. Little has happened, though, and the annulled Kenya election in August this year, and the unease related to the upcoming one (26 October) has been an added hurdle. Meanwhile, the haphazard footprint of human activities, through which elephants must navigate, is increasing by the day, and we can only hope that Narok County authorities take action soon. In the mean time, people and elephants are left to struggle in the ensuing fragmentation.

Also highlighted in the report is the unsustainable number of livestock. For many in the Mara ecosystem, livestock determines wealth – cattle are “savings” and sheep and goats are “petty cash”. Investing in cattle is also a way to avoid paying tax. In recent years, wealthy individuals, many of whom are politicians, have been putting big money into cattle while often fattening them up in Kenya’s national parks and reserves. It is our view that night grazing of tens of thousands of cattle in the Maasai Mara National Reserve is encouraging hungry elephants onto private land for browse.

All these factors mean that elephants and people often find themselves in close, and sometimes dangerous, encounters. HEC incidences are particularly prevalent where elephants’ traditional migratory routes are suddenly cut off by fences, roads, farms, or even townships, and when agricultural land bordering elephant habitat becomes a temptation for elephants to invade.

When you lose your home ground

Nalakite’s most likely received her spear wound while in the vicinity of human settlement, when people felt threatened by her presence. In her vulnerable condition, Nalakite sought refuge in a place she knew had enough water and food for her and her calves. The area she chose is a place she has frequented many times, in the past, when it was free of people. Indeed, Nalakite has likely known this area since she was a young calf, decades ago. But the last five years have seen enormous changes. What was once wilderness is now dotted with homesteads and enormous swathes of fenced off land can be seen in every direction.

Nalakite was not ‘out of the woods’ and we knew her healing process was going to take time. Being as emaciated as she was, Nalakite needed to gain weight to regain her strength. Since her treatment, we had noticed small improvements in her appearance, which gave us hope.

Early each morning the Elephant Aware team began monitoring her in rotational shifts that continued through the day. It was important to keep the Mara Vet Team updated. Also, because she was in an area abuzz with human activity, ranger presence was required to prevent further conflict. Indeed, reducing and preventing HEC has become Elephant Aware’s primary focus.

One afternoon, while we were observing Nalakite and her calves dozing under an Acacia tree, an elderly Maasai man suddenly appeared walking straight towards the elephants! The rangers leapt out of the vehicle, got his attention and brought him to the patrol vehicle – preventing a confrontation in which he might easily have been killed and landed Nalakite and her calves in more trouble.

Nalakite goes down

When the rangers arrived early on 4th October they found Nalakite lying in deep mud with her trunk just barely above the sludge. It seemed that she had stepped into a muddy waterhole and, in her fragile state, had slipped and fallen onto her side. The rangers called for help and assistance came from the community, the rest of the Elephant Aware team, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Mara Vet Team.

Nalakite was found lying in mud wallow. Elephant Aware and Kenya Wildlife Service rangers managed to get her out of the mud using two vehicles. Nalakite seemed to understand that people were trying to help her.

When a weak elephant goes down, it is rare that he or she manages to get up again. One look was enough to know that Nalakite’s situation was dire. Despite a grueling 12-hour effort – from 9 in the morning until 9 the following night, it was impossible to get Nalakite back onto her feet as her strength was spent.

After a 12-hour effort from many helping hands, it became clear that it was impossible to get Nalakite back on her feet.

After weeks of trying to help her, it was extremely painful to accept that there was nothing more that could be done for her. It was time to back away to allow the calves to be with their dying mother.

The calves stood by and touched their dying mother for hours. When, after his caresses failed to revive Nalakite, her eldest son did the next best thing: he lay down in the mud beside her.

In between the long hours trying to help Nalakite, we gave the calves time to be with their mother. In an apparent attempt to comfort her, Nalakite’s oldest son, lay down in the mud beside her.

Much has been written about elephants’ close and enduring bonds, their capacity for sympathy for another’s predicament, their understanding of death, and their capacity for expressing love and grief. But watching, first-hand, the tenderness that the calves expressed toward their dying mother, and the grief that was so clearly written on their faces and in their gestures was heart-breaking.

The three calves seemed to understand Nalakite’s dire situation. They repeatedly touched their dying mother, and comforted one another.

Nalakite passed away on the next morning.

Nalakite’s three calves

The focus is now on her young. Her twelve- and eight-year-old boys are old enough to make it on their own. They are, in any case, too old to be taken to the Sheldrick Trust elephant orphanage. Her daughter, now named Nalakite Mdogo (Little Nalakite) is the one of most concern. Although elephant calves normally suckle until they are four years old, by two years old they can survive without their mother’s milk.

If the rest of Nalakite’s family reappear and the calf is seen interacting with an older female in the family she could stay in the wild. If not, the Sheldrick Trust might need to be called in, as her chances of surviving if left with the two boys, would be low.

The calves stayed with their dead mother, grieving, throughout October 5th. In the evening, as we debated what to do, the eldest son began contact-calling – as if he might be in touch with other elephants. Our hopes were raised.

After Nalakite’s death the three calves remained close to Nalakite’s body through the night and the next day.

Nalakite’s sons are very affectionate and protective of their little sister, Nalakite Mdogo; they have been inseparable since their mother’s death.

Nalakite’s oldest son appeared particularly distressed over Nalakite’s death, resting his head on a tree for long periods.

The following morning, when the rangers arrived at the mudwallow where Nalakite lay, the calves were nowhere to be seen. Tracks of a male passing near Nalakite’s carcass lead us to a spot a few hundred meters away where we found them. On the 7th, once again they had moved. As a search was launched to find them, members of the community said that they had heard the voices of many elephants in the night and tracks in the vicinity led us to believe that the calves had joined this group. But the tracks led to an area of such thick bush, but search as we might, we could not locate them.

Finally, on the 8th we found the calves, feeding well and in the company of a family group of about 30 elephants. Each day, since then, we check in on the calves, to ensure they are ok, and scan the elephants they are with to determine whether other members of Nalakite’s family have showed up. We are looking for one elephant in particular – a female in her 20s, with one short right tusk, who has been seen with Nalakite many times and who looks just like her. We suspect that she is the calves’ older sister.

This is an ongoing saga in the lives of these little elephants, and in the lives of those of us who care about them. It does not have a neat and tidy ending, yet. The very best is always to leave young elephants with their close or extended family, but to try to achieve that is also connected with the risk that it doesn’t work out. Like so many stories in conservation, we are left to persevere and to hope. We also hope that those who follow the work of organizations like ours don’t assume that solutions are obvious. They aren’t. We can only do our best.

Now our focus is to try to ensure the survival of Nalakite Mdogo and her brothers.

During the weeks that Nalakite was suffering, Elephant Aware rangers were busy sensitizing the community living in the area, making them aware of her presence and appealing to them for patience and understanding. Many of the local people showed an amazing willingness to cooperate, and to assist, for which we are all very grateful. This same community wishes for Nalakite Mdogo to remain in the Mara with her brothers, not to be whisked away.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but perhaps in this case it will take a whole community to see Nalakite’s calves live their lives.

We received on 24th October this uplifting update from the Elephant Aware team who are monitoring Nalakite’s calves in Maasai Mara:
Nalakite Mdogo and her older sibling are still with the same elephant family they have been with for the 19 days since their mother died. Nalakite’s oldest son is not far away with other elephants. We have seen some more interaction between the calves and the other family members – which is a good sign. Nalakite Mdogo is eating well and she is always right next to her brother, who displays almost mother-like affection towards her. We are monitoring the calves closely and hope that they will continue to integrate into the herd of elephants they are with now.

Nalakite Mdogo
Nalakite Mdogo is always right next to her brother, who displays almost mother-like affection towards her.


ElephantVoices’ mission is to inspire wonder in the intelligence, complexity and voices of elephants, and to secure a kinder future for them. ElephantVoices engages in research, conservation and advocacy to advance understanding of elephant cognition, communication and social behavior and to promote sound and ethical management and care of elephants. Visit ElephantVoices for more information.


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