Amboseli National Park is positioned against the backdrop of ice-capped Mount Kilimanjaro offering one of the most iconic images of Africa. This park is just 392 square km located in Kajiado County, in south east Kenya. The park is part of the greater Greater Amboseli ecosystem which includes the Amboseli, Tsavo and Kilimanjaro ecosystems stretching from Mount Kilimanjaro down to the Chyulu Hills in Tsavo.
“To wander over the wildness of Africa is a privilege sought. To sense its spirit is inspirational. To watch its ways brings insight, understanding and acceptance.” – Mike Haworth
Mount Kilimanjaro towers over the park and has a direct influence on its weather and water resources. For photographers the majestic blue mountain back drop with a white snow cap is iconic. The eastern section of the park encompasses part of a large dry lake basin which is usually dry except during the long rains, when in some years it fills with shallow, alkaline water attracting a pink flush of flamingoes.
Amboseli has an ample supply of underground water which is filtered through thousands of metres of volcanic rock from Kilimanjaro’s ice cap into two clear water springs in the heart of the park.
The salt marshes in the eastern section of the park, with their intense verdant green, stand out in contrast in the arid and dusty plain of the eastern part of the Park. The Enkongo Narok, Ol Tukai, and Olokeya marshes are the three largest.
The beauty of Amboseli lies in the these iconic scenes of elephants in the foreground and Kili in the background. Scenes that can be viewed from many locations because of the size of Kili and the size of Amboseli.
The elephant population in Amboseli National Park is estimated at around 1600 and this population is one of the few that has been able to live a relatively undisturbed existence in natural conditions. This rare situation is considered to be primarily due to two factors – the presence of researchers and tourists in the park, and the support of the local Maasai people.
The Amboseli Elephant Research Project is the longest-running study of wild elephants ever undertaken (five decades), and is led by Dr Cynthia Moss and her team. While large scale poaching of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s reduced elephant numbers by a third across the continent, Amboseli mostly escaped the devastation thanks to the dedicated work of research and anti-poaching teams and support from the local Maasai communities.
“Elephants form deep bonds with each other, which last for decades. Elephant survival is strongly affected by access to the social and ecological knowledge which older elephants hold; where to go, what to eat, how to avoid danger.” according to Dr. Cynthia Moss.
We saw many family herds of elephants most of which had youngsters. A sign of a healthy elephant ecology, and the youngster looked carefree which was a good sign.
“We live in an astounding world full of life, movement, patterns and colour. You have a choice embrace it or ignore it!” ~ Mike Haworth
Amboseli and Tsavo’s elephant populations are some of the last genetic repositories of Africa’s great tuskers. The likelihood of seeing some of these great tuskers is good. The tourist guides recommend that from April to June, during the long rains, is not the best time to visit the park. That was not my experience in April 2021. The rains are carried by thunderstorms. The rains can be torrential but are usually over reasonably quickly – the African way!! As the thunderstorms are building, photographers are treated to some of the most wonderfully dramatic deep blue, water laden, cumulonimbus cloud formations which provide a perfect backdrop to the shafts of light and rainbows over the swamps where the elephants are feeding and wallowing.
To see a great tusker is an indescribable experience. Firstly, there are estimated to be only 20 left (thanks mostly to poaching for Asian demand) and secondly they are huge. A “great tusker” is a massive bull elephant with tusks that reach close to the ground. Up until around the age of 20, both male and female African elephants grow at a similar pace. At around 20 the females stop growing, while males continue to grow until around the age of 40, which explains why male great tuskers can be about 80cm taller and two times heavier than fully grown females. An average East African big tusker bull stands at about 3.2m in height at the shoulder and weighs around 6 tonnes. Their tusks can weigh over 50 kg each. The biggest elephant bull ever shot in Africa, which happened in Angola, was around 4 metres tall and weighed about 11 tonnes. Elephant tusks are actually enlarged incisor teeth which first appear when elephants are around two years old and they continue growing throughout their lives. The next images show an elephant bull in musth with his temporal gland streaming and his urine streaming which often colours his hind legs.
Not all leaders of herds are males. In an elephant herd the matriarch is leader. She is usually the oldest and largest female elephant in the herd. Adult male elephants are solitary in nature but may associate with other bulls in small, unstable groups. Males will leave the family unit between 12 and 15 years of age. The adult bulls wander from herd to herd looking for receptive females. While they mix up the gene pool in the process they disturb the family herd dynamics. Some the of herd matriarchs are also particularly large and highly protective so it is not a one way exercise for the bull.
Elephants possess huge emotional intelligence and, across Africa, there are examples of communities and elephant populations living side by side in relationships based on mutual respect. Elephant conservation isn’t purely about monitoring and protecting elephants from poachers, it is about developing new and respectful relationships between humans and elephants.
“Memories and intelligence are portable, something elephants seem to understand very well. Family members are remembered with reverence and gentleness. Survival knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next with generosity of spirit. The oldest are often the wisest and most knowledgeable because they have the greatest sense of context.” ~ Mike Haworth
Elephants are among the most intelligent, socially intricate and emotionally complex non-human species according to legend and research. This intelligence is demonstrated in their remarkable memory, empathy and ability to work as a team. They live a long time and accumulate and retain social and ecological knowledge. They remember the scents and voices of other individuals and migratory routes, special places and retain learned skills for decades.
Explore, seek to understand marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.