Born in 2002 to Hilda, Hipolito was a member of the so-called HA family, who were first sighted and photographed in 1973 by Cynthia Moss, a pioneering elephant researcher working along Amboseli Trust For Elephants. Not all the families in Amboseli (Kenya) are big and successful. Some have struggled and failed and have become extinct; because there were no females to continue. Other families hold on by a thread. The HA family seems destined to be tiny. At the time of the first encounter with Cynthia, this small group consisted of a female and two calves. There were no other elephants in the immediate area.

After matriarch’s Hannah was speared and died in 2001, Hipolito’s mother Hilda at 31 years old took over as matriarch. She kept the little family together and added a new member in 2002 – Hipolito. It was good that she had a daughter because the family needed more females to build up their numbers. It’s fine to produce males but they eventually leave the family to join the world of independent bulls.

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 family and can put the members in danger.

Hilda didn’t have her next calf until January 2009 at the start of the worst drought in living memory in Amboseli. The calf made it through but then Hilda died in December. She was one of 60 adult females who died during 2009. The researchers never found her carcass so they don’t know if she died of the drought or of poaching. Her orphaned calf died later in 2010.

After that, the was reduced to three again: Hilda who took over as a matriarch at very early age of 17, Hipolito and a soon-to-depart male Hendricks. Fortunately, Hilda is a member of a bigger bond group, which includes the FAs and KAs family. Perhaps this support and shared wisdom will help.

The photo shows Hestia with Hendricks and Hipolito behind and a visiting male calf at the front.

Photo and text credit: Cynthia Moss, Amboseli Trust For Elephants