A Tale of Two Elephants: celebrating the lives and mourning the deaths of Cirrocumulus and Ngampit

A Tale of Two Elephants: celebrating the lives and mourning the deaths of Cirrocumulus and Ngampit

On March 21st, the organization Save the Elephants posted on their Facebook page that two African elephants had been poached inside a nearby reserve: “Sad news from the north of Kenya. Usually the national reserves are safe havens for elephants, and they know it. But in the last two weeks two of our study animals have been shot inside the Buffalo Springs reserve. First an 18 year-old bull called Ngampit and then, yesterday, 23 year-old female called Cirrocumulus (from the Clouds family).”

These two elephants were well-known to researchers from Save the Elephants (STE), who monitor elephant populations on the frontlines of human/elephant conflict. Founded in 1993, the mission of Save the Elephants is “to secure a future for elephants and sustain the beauty and ecological integrity of the places they live, to promote man’s delight in their intelligence and the diversity of their world, and to develop a tolerant relationship between the two species,” according to their website.

Frank Pope, Chief Operations Officer for STE, wrote in an STE Field Diary of the illegal killings which came within a week of each other on April 2nd: “On 13th March we lost Ngampit (“Big Foot”), a mature male who was popular with researchers and who spent a lot of time consorting with our resident families. One of the females he used to spend time with was Cirrocumulus, one of the last remaining elephants from our second Clouds family…Then, exactly a week later, Cirrocumulus was also gunned down.”

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Cirrocumulus with her calf. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants (STE).

Before and after pictures of Cirrocumulus and of Ngampit were posted on Facebook and included in Pope’s online field diary. The before photos show profile images of two tall elephants–grand and social creatures. The after photos show in gruesome clarity their murder and mutilation: their faces hacked off for their ivory tusks. Those who follow elephant poaching incidents are sadly accustomed to such images of faceless fallen elephants. But the choice by Save the Elephants to show before and after pictures does something different than just present the latest carnage: it illustrates what was lost and personalizes the death. Sharing images and stories of these individuals enjoying their freedom while alive, before becoming victims to human violence, reminds us that each elephant killed is not just another faceless casualty.

Who were these elephants? What was known about their lives and personalities? How can we remember them as individuals, and why is it important for us to mourn each loss?

Each elephant murdered by ivory poachers was an individual trying to survive with distinctive lives, histories, family lineages, personalities, home ranges, and journeys. Both Ngampit and Cirrocumulus were born and died in the wild; neither animal was captive or collared so what is known of them was based on field observation. Because these animals were known individually within the scientific work of Save the Elephants, many stories, pictures, and videos of them are available, allowing us to reflect upon the unique lived experience of two elephant individuals.

Mongabay.com asked Save the Elephants to share the personal histories of these elephants with our readers. The following (unedited) impressions of the lives of these two elephants were written and compiled by Shifra Goldenberg, an STE Researcher, for mongabay.com, shared with permission by Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Founder of Save the Elephants:


“At nearly 2.5 meters from foot to shoulder, Cirrocumulus stood taller than most other 23 year old female elephants. Her tusks–long, symmetrical, and elegant–matched her height. We knew her from these features, but also from a distinctive skin fold on the top of her right ear, the same fold used to identify her carcass after she was poached in Buffalo Springs National Reserve in mid-March.

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Cirrocumulus in life and death. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants (STE).

“Cirrocumulus was always known as somewhat of an odd elephant. She was a long-time orphan, already absorbed as Nimbus’ daughter by the time the study started in 1997. We don’t know who her natal group was. She and Nimbus were the sole breeding females of the Clouds 2 family. Unlike most mother-daughter dyads, Cirrocumulus couldn’t always be found in the same group as Nimbus. She tended to go her own way. When Nimbus died in 2010, Cirrocumulus continued as a loner, floating between elephant groups, while her younger adopted sister attached herself to a different family. Though she didn’t stay with the Clouds 1 family, she often met with them as a matter of course and then parted ways. Her closest companion was her only calf, a female born in 2006.

“Observers often noted how unusual it looked for this calf to be nursing at 6 years old, her tusks getting in the way of a good hold. But as Cirrocumulus had no other calves, she continued to breastfeed her 6 year old. A normal inter-calf interval in the Samburu population is 4.01 years. By that expectation, she was ready for another calf. When we saw her in oestrus in June 2012 being mate-guarded by Matt, one of our last old bulls, we had reason to believe another calf was on the way.

“Hours spent following Cirrocumulus revealed her to be a lovable animal. In a society where dominance is correlated with size and age, Cirrocumulus stood out from the rest. Towering though hesitant, she was usually at the receiving end of dominance interactions, even when the dominant elephant was smaller than her. She often gave up choice resources for other elephants, and tended toward the edges of groups with her daughter.”


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Ngampit mating. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants (STE).

“Ngampit (“Bigfoot” in the Samburu language) was a young bull exploring his place in the elephant world among both males and females. We had the privilege of being privy to these explorations since first identifying him a couple of years ago. Despite the suggestion of his name, Ngampit was only a teenager and so was not very big. A friendly elephant, he was frequently found among our resident families, socializing and participating in group activities like shade sharing and greeting.

“One especially memorable story of Ngampit occurred in late 2012 after the rains had turned Samburu a lush green and elephants were in good body condition. We came across a group of about 120 elephants spread out in the plains feeding. It didn’t take long before we noticed unusually high levels of activity: a nine year old female from the Zodiacs family was in oestrus (likely her first time) and being chased alternately by different bulls. The bulls present included some in the youngest age category, some just big enough to be reproductively competitive, and one much older bull in full musth named Yeagar. The female would run from whichever bull was chasing her and inevitably be mounted. Yeagar would then run to the scene and chase the bull away. We watched this happen with four different bulls. The youngest among them was Ngampit. Ngampit and these other bulls were exhibiting the “sneaker male” strategy found in some reproductive systems in nature, whereby very dominant males and less dominant males express different behaviors associated with oestrus females. Because Ngampit was not big enough to stay and guard this young female, he instead tried to sneak a copulation when Yeagar wasn’t looking. When Yeagar did take notice, Ngampit quickly moved off so as to avoid confrontation. If Ngampit had been spared by poachers, he would have continued to use this strategy over several years until he himself was old enough to come into musth and fight off other bulls.”

Another view

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Portrait of Cirrocumulus. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants (STE).

On March 28, 2013, Goldenberg, STE researcher and University of Colorado PhD student, wrote further about interactions between the two elephants which were filmed (see youtube videos at the end of the article) on her STE Intern blog: “Cirrocumulus was an exceptional elephant…In the many hours I spent with this mother-daughter pair, they were often at the periphery of other elephant groups, interacting mainly with one another. When this calf disappeared about a month ago, I grew sad at the thought that Cirrocumulus had lost her closest friend.

“During the hours I spent with Cirrocumulus, I recorded many dominance interactions, primarily with Cirrocumulus at the receiving end. This may have contributed to her tendency toward the edge of groups, perhaps suggesting the consequences of isolation in elephant society. “In the accompanying videos, a young bull named Ngampit (“Bigfoot”, who was poached a few days before Cirrocumulus, also in Buffalo Springs National Reserve) joins the shade that Cirrocumulus is sharing with Stratus and Stratus’ calf from the Clouds 1 family. Her response is fairly typical: females often displace at the approach of young bulls, possibly to avoid harassment. To me the video captures two realities: the behavioral complexity of these animals (note her body language prior to and following Ngampit’s entrance: her trunk reaching in his direction, her physical displacement, her apparent awareness of his presence throughout his scratching session on the Acacia); and the degree to which the Samburu elephants carry on with their interactions despite their proximity to our research vehicles. I am grateful for both of these realities, and am sad to have lost a study subject so important to our understanding of social dynamics during disruption.”

Avoiding elephant extinction

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Ngampit on the right. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants (STE).

Elephants like Ngampit and Cirrocumulus face many challenges, widely documented by scientists and the media. Habitat loss and fragmentation makes elephant migrations more difficult and dangerous. Conflicts with humans over space and natural resources in Africa and Asia are increasingly common, often taking the form of crop raiding incidents as elephants seek food in human-settled areas. In addition to these survival challenges, elephants are often taken from the wild and are today more frequently the victims of poaching, as in the case of Ngampit and Cirrocumulus; because of high market demand worldwide, enormous profits can be made from the sale of ivory through the black market.

Poaching for ivory is at a ten year high and has grown more militarized and international in scale; recent incidents include the slaughter of whole herds at a time. For example, a recent massacre by a gang on horseback with AK47 machine guns and hacksaws took place in Cameroon, along the Chad border in March 2013, resulting in over 80 elephants killed (including 33 pregnant females and 12 calves)– this following the massacre of 650 elephants in the same area within Bouba N’Djida park over a few days in February of 2012. Today’s organized, well-financed, and militarized poaching operations mean that rangers are outmanned and outmatched, and as a result are often killed in action. Conservation organizations have responded by setting up ranger widow funds and baby elephant orphanages to cope with the effects of the mass violence.

The plight of elephants has been well-profiled recently; including last week in the premier of the HBO Documentary An Apology for Elephants,” in Bryan Christy’s National Geographic Article from October 2012 “Blood Ivory” (read mongabay.com’s Rhett Butler’s interview with Christy here), and in WildAid public media campaigns. STE’s Iain Douglas-Hamilton testified last spring before the U.S. Congress on the crisis facing elephants at the invitation of now Secretary of State John Kerry.

In a recent book “Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity”, G. A. Bradshaw describes how elephants suffer from the stress of these many challenges and how the cumulative effects of all these human-induced traumas are causing the breakdown of ancient elephant cultures and social organization. Ngampit and Cirrocumulus may have been killed by poachers, but the families they leave behind face a myriad of threats to their way of life.

Efforts to reduce further killings are a priority for STE. Frank Pope, in his Field Diary from April 2nd, expresses hope that the Buffalo Springs reserve, where Ngampit and Cirrocumulus were murdered, will soon be better secured thanks to newly acquired resources.

“A new anti-poaching helicopter, equipped for night operations and able to carry a Rapid Reaction Force and tracker dogs, is arriving in the area this week, thanks to powerful defenders of Kenya’s wildlife such as Sue Anschutz-Rodgers, Suzie Fehsenfeld, Susannah Rouse and others,” he writes.

Perhaps with increased donations and fortified protection forces utilizing better equipment other elephants can be spared the violent deaths shared by so many elephants, including Ngampit and Cirrocumulus.

In memoriam

The stories, images, videos, and impressions shared here, courtesy of STE, serve as obituary to celebrate the too-short lives of Ngampit and Cirrocumulus. Their violent deaths should not obscure the individuality that made them special in life, distinguished them as and among other elephants, and informed what we know of the species. Because of the conservation work of Save the Elephants and others who study them, not only do we better understand what elephants need to survive, but we can pause to celebrate the lives and mourn the deaths of each brave elephant departed.

Ngampit in life and death. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants (STE).

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Cirrocumulus nursing her calf. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants (STE).

This article was written for Mongabay.com and re-posted on Focusing on Wildlife.

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