19 February 2010

Lions kill elephant calf

Over the last couple of years I have been lucky enough to spend time filming for various projects in Amboseli, Kenya. During a shoot for Animal Planet last year I was out with the women of the Amboseli Trust For Elephants (ATE) early one morning when a call came in from Lion Researchers working in the area. They had witnessed two young male lions chasing an elephant calf which had somehow become separated from it's mother.

We raced to the scene whilst discussing what exactly we would do once we got there. Would we try and intervene or let nature take it's course? By the time we arrived the decision was taken from us. The lions had already managed to bring the calf down.

As there was nothing we could do to help the calf, Soila, Noraha and Katito began to search he area for signs of the calf's family in order to try and identify the calf. The ATE is a charity established scientist Cynthia Moss in Amboseli in 1972 and has undertaken the longest study of elephant populations in the world. The women of the trust undertake daily census's of the elephants within the park and know by name almost all the 1,500 or so elephants in the Amboseli ecosystem.

Despite years of experience in the field this was the first time lions killing an elephant calf had been witnessed by the women and they were very keen to establish the reasons behind this unusual occurrence.

As we searched for signs of a distressed mother, I noticed a large bull elephant approaching the lions. Clearly agitated the bull advanced towards the lions, temples streaming and sniffing the air. When he was almost upon the carcass he let out a huge trumpet and the lions scattered.

From a distance the elephant could see the calf was lifeless and bloody and he slowly moved off and the lions returned to the kill. At this point there was no sign of other families in the area and the lions took the opportunity to drag the calf towards cover.

Soila then notice a family in the distance sniffing the air and looking very disturbed. They approached the area very carefully, crowding together with the young calf's being ushered into the middle of the herd. As they neared the area where the calf was killed they became increasingly agitated. Eventually they gathered around the area where the calf had lain and was now covered in blood. The elephants slowly combed the area with their trunks trying to pick up the scent of the calf

After some time the elephants moved on very cautiously scanning the bush for signs of Lions.
Although the family was known to the Soila, Norah and Katito they couldn't say with any certainty that the calf belonged to this family. The calf was around 18 months old and as such was very hard to identify outwith the family group and with so many families in the ecosystem it would take some time to work out who exactly the unfortunate calf belonged to.

Occurrences of Lions killing elephant calf's' appear to be quite rare in Amboseli and in conjunction with the lion researchers the women established that possibly due to the drought (the worst in living memory) the young male lions had been pushed out of the pride to fend for themselves the previous week. Mounting hunger must have lead to the lions looking for an easy target and presumably a mother and calf separated from the herd would have made a reasonable target.

Last year the ATE estimate that 80-90% of the Wildebeest population was lost along with 70% of the Zebra and around 200 elephants The good news is after 3 years the drought in Amboseli broke in January and the ecosystem is slowly returning to normal and large aggregations of elephants are returning to the park along with the big bulls in musth.

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