The loss of knowledge from true matriarchs

Words and images by Mireia Villalonga.

My name is Kamali which means spirit guide, the protector, and I like to believe it suits me. I live in Northern Tanzania with my extended family. We are a big group that roams in between West Kilimanjaro and Serengeti. We are lucky to live in these beautiful natural places. Though sometimes we are in danger.

My mum was killed for her ivory tusks a few years ago. That experience was very traumatic for all of us, and sometimes, we come back to visit the place where she died to mourn her. I think of her every day. When amazing elephants like my mum are poached, it becomes an attack on the herd. We hand knowledge from generation to generation. The loss of critical members becomes a loss of knowledge within the family and a threat to survival.

​Since my mum died, I took the lead role in the family. Being her oldest daughter means that I am now the new matriarch and I guide my family across vast wilderness areas in search of food and water. To be honest, I am not as good as my mum was, as I didn’t have time to learn everything she had to teach me with her sudden loss, and sometimes I struggle to make decisions.

​We elephants are very social and like to have all our female friends and family members nearby – the males prefer to live alone. Our female unit will only split if resources become hard to find. This way, strategically, the chances of survival, if we roam in different areas, are higher. I am very sensitive and always have a hard time saying bye to a friend, but deep down, I know I will meet them soon again.

I think we elephants are quite unique. I haven’t seen anyone that looks like us yet. We spent 12 to 18 hours every day eating. We mostly like to eat grass, plants and fruit. With climate change and our home becoming dryer, it is more challenging for us to find food. Also, the human population growth makes us share our wilderness with communities and cattle, meaning that the space left for grazing is very competitive.

​But I have good news to give you. I am pregnant! In 22 months, I will welcome a little one into our family. I have a feeling it will be very special to see my little one grow in this wilderness. Then, I hope to live as long as my great-grandmother, who lived for 80 years, to see many great-grandchildren come into the world and hopefully, pass our knowledge to them.

​You know, we elephants remember everything. When I was born, I remember playing with my trunk and not being able to control it. It was fun but needed lots of help from my aunties and cousins, who were always around. Our trunk is a fusion of our nose and upper lip. Turns out to be the most important limb we have and is sensitive enough to pick up a blade of grass and strong enough to rip off a tree. We use our trunks to eat food and drink water. Yet, sometimes we like to have some fun and use our trunks to do snorkelling. Baths are important to us. We enjoy a good mud bath that once it dries, acts as sun protection.

​Scientists say that we have a unique intelligence because we can display grief, altruism, compassion and self-awareness. Honestly, we can do much more than that, but scientists haven’t yet realised. I hope one day our habitat and population recovers. We elephants are very important for the ecosystem you and I share. For instance, it is known that 30% of central African tree species need elephants to spread their seeds and survive. If our elephant population declines, African forests will diminish, threatening surrounding communities to lose access to resources, trade products and tourism. In addition to this, we also shape the ecosystems and dig water holes for other animals to benefit from. We like to help everyone but sometimes we need help too.

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