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Born in March 2000 to Smithie, Swoo was 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.
During his early years, Swoo and his family enjoyed prosperous conditions, which soon were about to change drastically. His mother Smithie died in August 2008, followed by the worst drought in living memory a year later. By the end of that year 83% of the wildebeests, 71% of the zebras, and 61% of the buffaloes had died in Amboseli region, Kenya. 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. Swoo survived those tough times and soon was ready to venture out on his own.
Like all male elephants, after pubescent years spent in the female-dominated world of mothers and maternal helpers, Swoo broke out and began spending time with other male elephants. While males may not form the same kinds of close-knit friendships as female-led groups, research has proven that male aggregations are far from random. The older males mentor the youngsters and guide them through the adult world.
Although males leave their birth family at an average age of 14, they don’t leave family life altogether. Instead, they might move off and join another family, or move from family to family – and up to age of 25 they mostly spend time with other family groups.
Photo and text credit: Cynthia Moss, Amboseli Trust For Elephants