Born in March 1972 to Serafina, Shasta 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.

Shasta gave birth to a male calf in November 1999. Sadly the calf died, but this is not uncommon for calves of first-time mothers. After that she thrived – raising calves successfully and in peace.

A decade later, 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 were the first to go. There was nothing for them to eat and their mothers could not produce enough milk for them, especially as the calves got older. In 2008, 151 calves were born, which was a record. However, the next year these calves were just at the age when they needed to supplement milk with vegetation and there simply wasn’t anything they could eat. As a result 97 of them died during 2009. The calves born during 2009 also suffered but they did a bit better because they didn’t have to eat as much vegetation. Of the 85 calves born during the drought 38 died. In total, the SA family lost six calves, but older animals were not spared either. 

Of the adult females over 50 years old only two survived in Amboseli. Over half of the matriarchs died, including Shirley, SA family’s leader. Shasta also died and her fate remains unknown – due to the resurgence of poaching, and the fact that both SA families used areas that had become dangerous, the researches were never sure whether they died as a result of the drought or at the hands of poachers. Losing so many females must have been very difficult for the family as they struggled with the challenge of making it through the drought without the support and wisdom of older, experienced family members. 

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