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Born in March 1967 to Torn Ear, Tonie was a member of the so-called T family. They were first sighted and photographed in 1973 by Cynthia Moss, a pioneering elephant researcher working along Amboseli Trust For Elephants. Tonie was estimated to be a 7-8-year-old female (the daughter of a female who probably died before the study commenced).
In 1981 few of the young females in the family reached sexual maturity, mated and gave birth to their first calves during 1982 – one of them was Tonie. Unfortunately her calf died, it is not uncommon for first time mothers. In 1990 and1994 Tonie had two sons who survived. Sadly then she lost the next one in 1987. The project assistants, Norah and Soila, found Tonie with the dead calf. She was standing over the carcass trying to protect it. The reason of death remains a mystery.
All seemed to be going well after that but then tragedy struck the TAs in January 1997, beginning of a severe drought, when their leader Tuskless was shot dead by the Kenya Wildlife Service in retaliation for a Maasai cow that was killed by an elephant. The loss of a matriarch is always devastating but in this case there was also an orphaned calf facing almost imminent death. Tonie took over the leadership of the TA family after Tuskless’s death and has held the family together very well. The birth of a new calf to Tonie in May 1998 seemed to help the family coalesce.
Tonie was still leading the remainder of the family when in 2009 everything changed dramatically when Amboseli, Kenya, was hit by the worst drought in living memory. Even the very old Maasai men and women could not remember a worse year. More than 80% of their cattle died. The wildlife suffered as well— 83% of the wildebeests, 71% of the zebras, 61% of the buffaloes, and 25% of Amboseli’s elephants died.
There simply wasn’t enough food for the animals. Although there is always water in Amboseli, fed from Kilimanjaro, but with no rain there was little or no vegetation. Most of the calves born in 2008 and 2009 died. Even more tragically many of the older females died. All but two of the big adult females over 50 perished. Tonie was one of the older females who disappeared – presumably from poaching because she had long, thick tusks. Her family suffered a great loss of a skilled and wise leader.
Photo credit and text: Cynthia Moss, Amboseli Trust For Elephants & Elephant Voices