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Philomena, born in 1943, belonged to the P family, which was by far the largest group in the Kenyan elephant population ever known. The average family unit size at that time was seven – but the P’s were made up of over 20 females and calves. Philomena was one of the 6 largest females of the herd. Her presumably sister, Penelope, was the matriarch of the P family.
1982 was a crucial year for the family as they were the first population to permanently split into two herds, due to the incredible size of them that made it impossible for one single matriarch to lead. While not an immediate change, by 1983, there were two clear-cut families: Penelope’s, including Philomena, which from then on were referred to as the PAs, and another one lead by Phoebe, which became the PCs. The two families formed a bond group, still spent some time all together and greeted each other when they met. Philomena had three calves: Pamela in 1963, “Phil’s Wedge” (called so as he had a wedge-shaped tear out of his ear) in 1968 and Poppy in 1973.
In 2001, the greatest tragedy a family can experience occurred as Penelope was poached and died. The death was a critical event for the family, because the PA survivors did not hold together; the family broke down into sub-groups relatively soon after her death. Philomena took over as matriarch of one section, which she led very successfully over the next eight years.
In 2009, came the next tragedy: Amboseli was struck by the worst drought in living memory. By the end of that year 83% of the wildebeests, 71% of the zebras, and 61% of the buffaloes had died. Close to 400 elephants perished from both the drought and an upsurge in poaching. Of the adult females over 50 years old only two survived in Amboseli. Over half of the matriarchs died, including Philomena.
Losing such important females was extremely difficult for the family, as they struggled with the challenge of making it through without the leadership of experienced family members. The drought eventually broke in December and fairly good rain fell in 2010. African savannahs are remarkable in being able to recover quickly. Within a couple of months the woodlands and plains were transformed from what looked like bare soil to lush green swards. Slowly the elephants began to recover, but we have never seen any elephant families coming remotely close to as large as the P’s…
The photo shows Philomena (left) and Penelope (right) greeting with an intense display of emotion; they were always very close.
Photo credit: Amboseli Trust for Elephants