Nairobi — AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK'S ELE-phants are probably the world's most famous. They are not only the longest studied elephants in the wild but also the longest studied wild mammals. Talk about being doubly famous.
"Elephants are extremely intelligent animals," says Dr Cynthia Moss, taking a morning break from shooting a 13-part Amboseli elephants "soap opera" for Animal Planet which will be screened on Discovery channel starting in 2009.
"You can never be bored watching them," says the scientist, who started the elephant research project way back in 1972. It goes without saying she knows most of them by sight.
Dr Moss is director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants where her role is fundraising. She also started the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in the 1970s.
Today, the elephant research team in Amboseli has expanded to include the Maasai sisters Soila and Katito Sayialel and Nora Jirina
"We compensate the Maasai for livestock lost," continues the scientist. "Soila sits on various community committees to discuss ways forward regarding issues like development, farming and tourism. As a Maasai woman, the men initially shunned her but they now respect her."
All the elephants found in the Amboseli ecosystem have a file. There are records of 58 elephant families and each family is assigned a letter. All the members of that family are then named after that letter.
For example, the family beginning with "E" will have names like Echo - who is the matriarch and one of the most beautiful, with a set of perfectly symmetrical curved tusks and one of Dr Moss's favourites - then Emily, and so on.
The files contain details like when the female gave birth, or had twins or died. Similarly, the males have details like when one of them went into "musth" - a state of heightened sexual desire.
Dr Moss was the first to record this in African elephants. One of the telltale signs is a fluid discharged from a gland near the temples. Musth derives from an Indian word meaning boisterous or "high." At any one time, there are 300-400 elephants in the park and 1,500 in the larger ecosystem. The park is unfenced allowing for free movement in and out. The elephants use the park as a drinking ground because of the permanent swamps fed by the snows of Kilimanjaro.
DURING THE RAINS, MANY will stay out of the park because there's water elsewhere. This way, the pressure on the park lessens, allowing the vegetation to rejuvenate.
"Amboseli National Park is only a small part of the Amboseli ecosystem. The ecosystem is 4,000 to 5,000 square kilometres and stretches into Tanzania. The park itself is only 390 square kilometres," says Dr Moss.
However, things are changing now because the land around the park is being subdivided and fenced. It is a matter of concern not only for the elephants but also the whole Amboseli ecosystem.
"There is no land-use plan," says Dr Moss. "In certain areas, it used to be open where the Maasai grazed their cattle and the elephants browsed. But not any more. That land east of the park is now used for farming."
"The land was under group ranches, but now it is being subdivided among private owners. The owners then lease the land to people who are either constructing lodges or carrying out farming activities," she says.
Driving from Taveta to Amboseli National Park, a stretch of almost 150 km parallel to Kilimanjaro, it's not difficult to read the signs of soil erosion. The area is basically arid.
The tortilis acacia forests and the savanna grasses that grow in the area are hardy plants evolved to survive tough conditions and hold the soils together.
But when they are cleared to make way for food crops, the topsoil is relentlessly blown away. With nothing to stop the winds, they gain momentum, stirring up clouds of dust. Farming is not the best option.
The other concern is that of investors coming in now that there's no room in the Maasai Mara to put up more lodges and camps. Along the Kimana Gate, there are about 17 new sites for lodges and camps.
"It's a very serious situation," says Dr Moss. "We need to keep the migration corridors open."
It's no secret that an elephant's life is one long meal. The world's largest land mammal has to eat constantly to keep its massive body supplied with nutrients. If you fence in the elephant, the area will inevitably become a desert.
The other option would be to keep culling the elephants to maintain a constant number that the land can sustain.
But, like humans, elephants are very complex animals with extended family ties. So shooting them creates dysfunctional families. It's been seen in the Southern African parks where animals cropped in a bid to keep an equilibrium between animal numbers and what the land can support, show more aggressive behaviour.
"Some Maasai groups are concerned," says Dr Moss. "They know that the elephant and the cattle go well together because the elephants open up the bush for grassland, which the cattle then graze on. Group ranches like the Olgululugui are working on keeping corridors open for the elephants by using their land as a wildlife conservancy."
In the mid 1990s, three big Amboseli tuskers were shot dead by hunters on the Tanzanian side. Tanzania allows sport hunting, but Kenya does not. There is a cross-border agreement that there should be no sport hunting along the border and in the Longido block in Tanzania.
"Elephants move vast distances," explains Dr Moss. "A Tanzanian researcher - Alfred Kikoti - is tracking elephant movements. He has fixed collars on the elephants and we're seeing elephants from here going as far as Lake Natron and Arusha National Park in Tanzania."
A few years ago, Amboseli National Park was supposed to be degazetted and handed back to the Ol Kejuado County Council; this was seen as a political manoeuvre to win favours.
However, the move was unlawful. For degazettement, a whole process has to be followed. One of the requirements is to win 60 per cent votes in parliament. This never happened, but it caused tremendous confusion. To make things worse, a new district was carved out of Kajiado called Loitoktok and now the park lies in Loitoktok.
There are pressing issues about the capability of the county council to manage the park. At this point the park is still under the Kenya Wildlife Service the custodians of the country's wildlife.
HOW DO ELEPHANTS VI- ew the world? Indeed how do animals view the world? We take it for granted that as superior beings, only our views count. But elephants have huge brains and are intelligent. "The study of cognition is a hot topic today," says Dr Moss. "It basically means trying to get into the minds of the animal.
"We know from playbacks that elephants have 70 different vocalisations that have different meanings. My initial work was on how they socialise. But it's like I superimposed my views on them.
"So we played back vocals of Echo when she was not around. Her family responded positively to Echo's voice. The bigger clan that she lived in responded well. The next level was other elephants not in the clan and they bunched together nervously. The behaviour of the three groups confirmed what I had observed in the field," she said.
"Another experiment we did was with T-shirts. Did elephants recognise people? Well, the elephants fled from the Maasai wearing T-shirts. They walked away calmly from scientists wearing the same T-shirts (because they see them so often) and ignored the people who were not wearing the T-shirts. So the reaction was different for all the groups.
"It proved that the elephants are discriminating. They are scared of the Maasai (because the Maasai spear the elephants when they crop raid). A single elephant recognises at least 100 other elephants."
In the 1990s, there were two important DNA experiments done on the elephants regarding their family structures.
One was to determine whether males avoid mating with their close relatives. The DNA showed that they did. The other experiment was to see if the older males were more successful breeders. Again, the DNA showed that they were.
Another experiment that was conducted in an American zoo by Katie Payne showed that elephants can hear infrasound - sound that is below the human range of hearing. The experiment was repeated in the wild in Amboseli and showed that they did.
With the accelerating land use changes, the human-wildlife conflict is getting worse.
"The crops are getting closer and closer to the park," says Dr Moss. "In February, 14 elephants were speared and four died. We need to save as much of the ecosystem as we can because the park on its own cannot survive," she says. "If the ecosystem changes, the park will not be viable for other species.
"Amboseli is fascinating because of the swamps. It would never be able to feed a huge number of animals on its own.
"Already, a lot of the elephant corridors are blocked off. There should be a directive for no more lodges and camps because Amboseli is a fragile ecosystem and cannot take a big increase in vehicular traffic," she adds.
However, this is not likely to happen if we are to go by what has happened around the Maasai Mara, where the joke is that there are more lodges than the lions.
"The National Environment Management Authority does the environmental impact assessments for the viability for the construction of the new lodges and camps, but we have never been consulted and being out in the field most of the time, we miss out on newspapers where the EIA notices are carried for any issues to be discussed.
AGAIN, THE EIAs CANNOT BE objective because the investors for the new construction have to pay the EIA specialists," says Dr Moss.
"The Amboseli ecosystem is still not ruined though. It still has a chance to recuperate as an ecological unit. But something has to be done now.
"The Maasai can reap more benefits from the wildlife," says Dr Moss.
"The problem is the land use policy. There's nothing stopping someone from putting 20-storey buildings on the boundary of the park. There's also the issue of Kilimanjaro. It's estimated that by 2015, Kili's ice glacier will be gone. We don't really know the long-term impact of this."
Indeed, we can only speculate. Amboseli's soils aren't the most fertile. Within the park lies the dry Lake Amboseli. Nothing grows around it because the soil is noxious. Outside, with the sudden increase in water, things might look good for a while.
But the fresh water from the mountain will only last till supplies run out. The lands being cleared for farming might just turn into a huge wasteland where once a rich ecosystem thrived.
We need to put in place well thought out land use policies that will benefit the nation as a whole. Fragile ecosystems are best left alone, but can be used to generate income from other activities such as wildlife havens.
What would happen if Amboseli National Park - in the face of a rising human population with an increasing demand for land - is fenced off?
"It would become a zoo that can support only 10 elephants. The future of the park therefore lies in the hands of the communities living around it," says Dr Moss.
The elephant team is working on a scientific book covering 30 years of elephant conservation work, to guide future generations working in the Amboseli ecosystem.