Born in 1995 to matriarch Hannah, Hercules 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.

Despite a few previous less successful attempts where Hannah lost calves, she broke her spell with Hercules. Thanks to that and a couple other births, by the beginning of 1997, the family had grown to five.

In 2000, terrible drought hit Amboseli. Hannah had another calf in April, that unfortunately didn’t make it through the tough conditions. Fortunately the older calves made it through, including Hercules.

In September 2001, another tragedy struck the family. Hannah was speared and died. It was the result of an often neglected other threat to elephants: human wildlife conflict. In a resource constrained land such as Amboseli in Kenya, croplands are an irresistible attraction to wildlife, and elephants can be destructive. People defend their crops in all ways possible, and sometimes this takes the form of sharpened spears.

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, Hercules’ aunt, at 31 years old took over as matriarch and managed to keep the little family together. The HAs recovered from the drought but perhaps never from the death of Hannah. Hilda kept trying. She raised her own daughter named Hipolito and kept Hercules alive. With only a single adult female in the family there would be no more births for at least four years, the normal inter-birth interval for elephants, which stopped the family from a healthy growth.

The photo shows the HA family in 1997 with (left to right): Hercules, Hannah, Harley, Hestia and Hilda.

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