Ecosystem

The Amboseli ecosystem is unique: No other place in Africa combines its special hydrology, topography, geological and cultural history.

Despite modest rainfall, a system of swamps fed by the Kilimanjaro mountain forest catchment supports a spectacular array of birds and mammals, dominated in terms of biomass and visibility by a population of some 1,500 African elephants.

Overlaid on the transboundary (Kenya and Tanzania) landscape is a traditional system of nomadic pastoralism practiced by the Maasai people, whose faith and pride in their own culture is impressively steadfast in the face of rapid social and economic development.

This cultural identity has ensured Amboseli remains largely unfenced and undeveloped, so that wildlife continues to move across the 8,000 square kilometres in response to rainfall and food availability. Amboseli National Park lies at the heart of this ecosystem, covering just 392km 2 but containing the vital life-supporting swamps.

In recognition of Amboseli’s special combination of ecology and culture, UNESCO and the Government of Kenya designated the region a Man and the Biosphere reserve in 1991 to conserve its biodiversity, contribute to the development of the local human population and improve the local infrastructure in support of education and research.

We are proud to work with a number of partner NGOs in the ecosystem, and with the Kenya Wildlife Service, keeping Amboseli safe for wildlife for generations to come.

Project History

In 1968, Cynthia Moss made a life-changing decision and moved to Africa to study elephants in northern Tanzania with Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Four years later, teaming up with Harvey Croze, she found ideal conditions for studying elephants in Amboseli National Park. Four decades later, her work is the longest-running study of wild elephants ever undertaken, documenting the lives and deaths of almost 3,000 elephants. The Amboseli Elephant Research Project is now a hub for research collaboration and training.

Since its inception in 1972, AERP has monitored the Amboseli elephants, identifying all the elephants in the population and collecting data on births, deaths and behaviour. Today, as a result, AERP is the critical source of baseline data on elephants.

Ensuring the survival of the elephant in today’s Africa is an increasingly complex problem. The ivory trade – legal and illegal – and the tremendous increase in human population in Africa have taken a serious toll.

In 1979, there were estimated to be 1.3 million elephants in Africa; ten years later, there were only about 600,000. In Kenya alone, the elephant population plummeted from 130,000 in 1973 to less than 20,000 in 1989, a loss of 85%. The reason for this catastrophic decline: the ivory trade. The combination of growing human populations and resulting loss of wildlife habitat has exacerbated wildlife-human conflict, creating yet another threat to the future of the elephant.

The elephant population in Amboseli National Park is one of the few that has been able to live a relatively undisturbed existence in natural conditions. This rare situation is primarily due to two factors – the presence of researchers and tourists in the park, and the support of the local Maasai people.

In the absence of poaching and culling, the Amboseli elephant population has been increasing slowly since the late 1970s. Amboseli is, therefore, one of the few places in Africa where the elephant age structure has not been drastically skewed and the population spans the whole range from newborn calves to old matriarchs in their 60s and, even more unusual, many large adult bulls in their 40s and 50s.

Realistic solutions to the problems facing Africa’s elephants can be developed only with the help of comprehensive long-term research studies. Studies in Amboseli have provided unique and critical information on elephant birth rates, death rates, ranging patterns and nutritional needs, illuminated by analyses of their underlying determining factors. But the studies have also revealed much more: that elephants communicate at a very sophisticated level; that they celebrate birth, have lifelong friendships and appear to mourn the death of family members. Research has shown them to be highly intelligent with the ability to reason and problem solve and has provided a window onto their complex social structure.

These discoveries made in Amboseli have altered the way in which conservationists approach the management of elephant populations. what was once viewed as just a herd must now be respected as a family. What was once seen as ivory on the hoof must be recognized as a matriarch whose accumulated knowledge can keep her family alive in times of drought or famine. The magnificent bull with 100-pound tusks is a male in his reproductive prime who should be passing on his genes for health and longevity, not gracing the trophy room of a sport hunter.

Legal Status (ATE & AERP)

ATE, the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, is a not-for-profit trust registered in Kenya and the USA (501c3). ATE’s operational focus is in Amboseli National Park and the surrounding ecosystem; its influence reaches out to elephant conservation, management and policy-setting worldwide.

ATE has an administrative, fund-raising and advocacy office in the United States, a program management office in Nairobi, and a field research office and camp in Amboseli national park. The Nairobi office provides a base for administration, project support and field support.

AERP, the Amboseli Elephant Research Project is the Trust’s research arm. Since 1972 AERP has studied the Amboseli elephants, making it today one of the longest studied populations of free living large mammals in the world.

AECT, the African Elephant Conservation Trust, is an endowment fund established in the USA. The long-term objective of AECT is to initiate, support and ensure the continuation of key elephant research projects across the African continent modeled on the ATE philosophy and research methodology. In time, income from the endowment can used to fully fund the work of ATE and AERP and enable the field researchers focus their energies on their project and relieve them of the burden of continued fund raising. AERP’s unparalleled body of knowledge will thus be made available to those addressing issues such as land use, wildlife education, protected area management, and the consequences of human population expansion.

“Elephants form deep bonds with each other, which last for decades. Elephant survival is strongly affected by access to the social and ecological knowledge that older elephants hold; where to go, what to eat, how to avoid danger.”
- Dr. Cynthia Moss