Born in 1999 as a late child to family matriarch Philomena, Petronella was a member of the so-called PA family, who were first sighted and photographed in 1973 by Cynthia Moss, a pioneering elephant researcher working along Amboseli Trust For Elephants.
Childhood was a reasonably peaceful time for Petronella until 2009, when Amboseli (Kenya) experienced 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. More than 400 elephants perished from both the drought and an upsurge in poaching. The problem was that there was almost no vegetation left to eat. Amboseli always has fresh water because of the underground rivers coming from Kilimanjaro. These rivers create permanent swamps in the Park. So the animals did not die of thirst but rather from hunger. In addition, in the case of the elephants, as they weakened they appear to have succumbed to disease as well. To add to the troubles, the researchers witnessed an upsurge of poaching for ivory at the same time, possibly catalysed by the number of carcasses, and the desperate economic losses people in the ecosystem were suffering.
The calves and elderly were the first to go. 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 must have been very difficult for the family, as they struggled with the challenge of making it through without the leadership of experienced family members.
The matriarch is the pivot around which everything revolves: she keeps the unit together and defends it; she has the most acquired knowledge of spatial and temporal resource distribution. She therefore makes major decisions as to movements: daily, seasonal or annual, migration patterns, home range etc. Sudden loss of the matriarch will lead to disruption of the cow-calf unit, unless the oldest daughter (or a sister of the matriarch) is prepared to take over that position. That was not the case for the eldest in the group at that moment – an elephant called Puff is quite a loner and although she’s the oldest female she does not appear to be taking on the role of matriarch, leaving the family a little unstable. Petronella has been taken good care of though by remaining females in the group and grows healthy and strong.
Photo and text credit: Cynthia Moss, Amboseli Trust For Elephants, Robbie Labanowski