Born in 1994 as a late child to Shirley, the family matriarch, Shortcake is a member of the so-called SA family. The family was first sighted and photographed in 1973 by Cynthia Moss, a pioneering elephant researcher working along Amboseli Trust For Elephants.
Shortcake and the SAs lived peacefully through till 2009, and during that period 18 more calves were born to the family. This should have been a period of growth and recovery for the SAs, but in 2009 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. 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 were the first to go – Shortcake was lucky to be old enough to survive on her own. However, the odds were not as favourable for her mother. Of the adult females over 50 years old only two survived in Amboseli. Over half of the matriarchs died, including Shirley. Due to the resurgence of poaching, and the fact that both SA families used areas that had become dangerous, we were never sure whether Shirley died as a result of the drought or at the hands of poachers. Shortcake survived the drought and set out to start her own family.
Photo copyright and text: Cynthia Moss, Amboseli Trust For Elephants, Kenya Wildlife Service