Born in 1990 to Shirley, the family matriarch, Savita was a member of the so-called SA family. They were first sighted and photographed in 1973 by Cynthia Moss, a pioneering elephant researcher working along Amboseli Trust For Elephants.
By the late ‘80s the researchers started running out of the common first names. Usually a calf is not named until it is four years old. Up until that age it is referred to by a code based on its mother’s name and its year of birth. But then Cynthia started using themes for each year’s calves: all born in 1987 were given Kenya place names. For the 1990 calves they chose Indian names: Shirley’s 1990 daughter became Savita and Stacy’s 1990 male was named Shekar.
Childhood and teenage years were relative stable for Savita and SAs, however in 2009 Amboseli, Kenya, 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. 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 first to go. Of the adult females over 50 years old only two survived in Amboseli. Over half of the matriarchs died and most elderly females, including Savita’s mother Shirley. Due to the resurgence of poaching, and the fact that both SA families used areas that had become dangerous, the researchers were never sure whether Shirley died as a result of the drought or at the hands of poachers.
Savita, who was only 20 years old, had to take over as matriarch. She led a ragtag bunch of orphans and young females. It was a big unknown whether they could successfully raise calves – but the doubts were soon answered with a baby boom! Luckily for the mothers and calves, Amboseli also experienced a higher-than- average rainfall year, which is giving these new calves an excellent start in life. Things are looking promising for SA family!
The photo shows Savita with her daughter Sutton who made it through the drought; most of the calves born in 2008 died during the drought so Savita is doing something right.
Photo and text credit: Cynthia Moss, Amboseli Trust For Elephants