“Echo’s death was very painful. She was special. She was a leader. We still miss her. I miss her a lot. We love Ella but she’s irresponsible. She has failed to keep the family together.” Listening to Norah Njiraini speaking passionately, it is easy to imagine she’s engulfed in the usual chit-chat
By Angela Ndagano
“Echo’s death was very painful. She was special. She was a leader. We still miss her. I miss her a lot. We love Ella but she’s irresponsible. She has failed to keep the family together.” Listening to Norah Njiraini speaking passionately, it is easy to imagine she’s engulfed in the usual chit-chat about family drama that dominates our living rooms and sets precedent at the family gatherings.
And yet hers is an unusual family that nestles in the Amboseli National Game Park, at the feet of the legendary Mountain Kilimanjaro in Kenya. She’s talking about elephants!
Njiraini works as a Training Coordinator at Amboseli Trust for Elephants where she lives for the survival of the endangered animals. The Trust runs a long-term research project on the ethology of the African elephant. The project studies the elephant's social behaviour, age structure and population dynamics.
It is the longest running study of elephant behaviour in the wild, and has gathered data on life histories and association patterns for more than 1700 individual elephants. The research project was initiated in 1972 by American conservationist Cynthia Moss and Behaviourist and ecologist Harvey Croze.
Njiraini’s day-to-day life at the Trust involves closely monitoring and collecting data on the Amboseli elephants. As a training coordinator she passes on her data collection expertise to Maasai Scouts, students of elephant biology, wildlife managers and anyone lucky enough to visit the Trust.
“Each of the Amboseli Families (of elephants) has a two-letter code (AA, AB, AB, BB, CA, CB e), and all the family members have names beginning with the first family letter. For example in the A families we have Alison, Agatha, Amelia and Anastasia.” Her face lights up as she ardently speaks about the elephants.
“What most people don’t understand is that elephants share a lot in common with humans. They share with us a strong sense of family and loss. Families stick together and they grieve the death of a loved one. When an elephant senses that its death is near, it will come back to die close to its family. Just like humans, each elephant has its own unique personality,” she explains.
Observing her zealously speaking about elephants, it is hard to imagine that this was not a dream she natured from childhood.
“Never in my wild imagination did I think that I would be studying elephants. In 1985, I was living with my older sister when she was approached by Dr. Joyce Poole who was working with Amboseli National Park as a member of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project. She needed an assistant,” she remembers.
Although she was not interested in the job, her sister pushed her to attend the interview. It was disastrous!
“I had no idea about elephants. To make matters worse, I showed lack of interest,” she recalls. Following the interview, it was clear that the job was meant for someone else. Njiraini decided she would stick to teaching, a profession in which she was qualified. But there was a larger purpose for which she was destined to live. She was about to find out.
“Because of the bond Dr. Joyce Poole shared with my sister, I was given another chance. I accompanied her to the park to track the elephants. When one of the male elephants came towards the small Suzuki (car) we were seated in, I raised my window and trembled with fear. But then I realized Joyce was not afraid. She just laughed.”
It was in that moment that the power of the wild consumed her being. She lost the fight and caved-in. Since 1985, she has never looked back.
She’s was so engrossed in the elephant world that she had to find a way to balance her ‘wild’ children with her own children. As a single mother of two boys, aged 23 and 30 respectively, she has had to ensure they get a firm education despite her work. They spent the school days in her brother’s care while holidays were spent at the Trust.
“My first born is a Tour operator and he loves elephants as well,” she says of her son whose love for tourism and the tusked mammals can be traced as far back as 1985 when he was six months old at the time his mother begun working with the Trust as a trainee.
Her second son is the proverbial apple that fell far from the tree. He is a pilot. “That one isn’t into elephants,” she laughs.
However, her laughter soon turns to gloom and her cheery mood wanes. Memories from the past remind her of a tragedy that befell her paradise. In 2009, a tenacious drought swept across the Amboseli area and in its wake was a savagery sight. Four hundred (400) dead elephants lay in the fields. The sight of each carcass was a dagger into her heart. It was the most severe drought the area had experienced since 1961.
“I wanted to give up. It was so painful watching the calves suckle onto a dying mother. It was hurting to watch a calf kicking and breathing its last.” The tragedy happened seven years ago, but it nearly breaks her into tears like it has just happened.
Despite the pain, she knew she wouldn’t quit. The elephants needed her.
“We had to fight. We had to survive,” she says defiantly.
Indeed the elephants lived on. There was an extraordinary baby boom in 2012. The orphaned elephants had matured and defying the tragedy with newborns. The dry land of Amboseli was blossoming with renewed hope.
At 52, Njiraini possesses a vibrant smile and a youthful physique that would charm any suitor looking for a happily ever after fairy tale. But, she’s not searching! The pursuit for self-gratification that is often associated with companionship poses a risk to her relationship with the elephants.
“I am so comfortable with my life. I can’t imagine committing to someone who will restrict my movements and reduce the time I have to spend with the elephants. I am married to the elephants!” She chuckles.
Her marriage to the elephants is a delightful experience but not a fairytale by a long shot. She struggles with concerns that are not only limited to unpredictable harsh climate change.
“Poaching worries me,” Njiraini says. “When I think of the possibility of someone killing the elephants, my heart breaks. I lose sleep. It’s the same kind of feeling you have when you know a loved one is in danger.”
Her fears are warranted. Statistics from the World Elephant Day website are frightening. An estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts, leaving only 400,000 remaining. An insatiable lust for ivory products in the Asian market makes the illegal ivory trade extremely profitable, and has led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants.
In a 2013 annual report, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) reported 302 elephants were lost to poaching that year. However, according to the census cited in that annual report, elephant populations within KWS-monitored areas were steadily growing. In 2013, they had reached 1,940 individuals. The country is known to have lost 137 elephants and 24 rhinoceros to poachers in 2014. The total elephant population within Kenya is estimated at roughly 38,000 according to the KWS annual report of 2012.
As we depart from the Trust with our Landrover steadily venturing into the expansive dry lands of Amboseli National Game Park, isolated elephants and some in herds roam free in the semi-arid flat plains, uninterrupted by the activities of modern man. Njiraini’s love story with the elephants is playing before me. It isn’t just tusked animals I am pondering over.
They are families that grieve a loss, celebrate a life and value family. I begin wondering who could be Agatha, Anastasia, or defiant Ella. I am consumed by Njiraini’s love and concerns for Amboseli’s gentle beasts.
Married to the elephants