Walking With Giants

Posted by on July 3rd, 2011

In a hilltop ranch-house with sweeping views of the Santa Ynez Valley, a group of about 15 gathered. Many were Valley dwellers, but all shared one thing in common; their passports. Passports that read like a diplomat assigned to some far-flung outpost in Africa. Kenya, Rwanda, Egypt – the bond among those gathered was their time on the African continent.

On May 27, the adventurers gathered to hear a plea for help and discussion on the quintessential African mammal, the elephant. There is a short list of renowned female naturalists who have carried out their life’s work in Africa: Jane Goodall with the chimpanzee, Dian Fossey with the gorilla and Cynthia Moss with the elephant. Moss has worked for more than 40-years in the plains of Africa, conducting one of the longest continuous studies of any animal or group of animals on the planet.


As a young woman, Moss took a trip to Eastern Africa that would set the course of her life. Later, armed with $5,000, a keen eye, no formal scientific training and a car that would be more at home on the streets of Paris than the plains of Africa, she began to study a family of elephants. Her studies did not cease and she is now considered one of the leading experts on African elephants.

Moss has published more than 100 scientific papers, four books and been the subject of six documentaries from such luminaries as Animal Planet and the BBC. Nearly a half-century of observation and the volumes of research it produced belong to Moss, which might come as a surprise to a person meeting her for the first time.

Moss dresses simply, wears her hair plainly, is a pleasant conversationalist, and a smile always seems to be working its way to the corner of her mouth. Not quite the picture of the daring adventurer braving the wiles of Masai country one might expect. But Moss’s friends describe her as dedicated and persistent. “Any woman who would go to Africa for 40 years and live in a tent to work with nature and the Masai is extraordinary,” said Bruce Ludwig, a philanthropist and board member of Moss’s Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

Life on the plains below Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peak is never easy, and the last few years have not been kind to the elephant herd Moss loves so deeply. Encroachment from farmers, crippling drought and the ever-troublesome ivory trade are claiming the lives of the iconic but shrinking African elephant herds.

Amboseli’s Elephants

Moss has been studying a group of elephants that make their home on the small Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The reserve area itself is only 150 square miles, but it is part of a larger ecosystem stretching 5,000 square miles at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Amboseli is an old lake basin full of marshes and wetlands. Snow from Kilimanjaro’s glaciers runs in underground streams, the vast grasslands is stubbled with the occasional tree and elephants roam freely.

In fact, the Amboseli elephants are one of the only groups of elephants left in the world that roam much as they would have centuries ago. In the late 1970s and early 80s, Kenya lost 85 percent on its elephant habitat to agriculture, so a well-preserved habitat is no small wonder. But even the rare Amboseli is no stranger to pain and loss.

Although rains fell this year in Kenya, they fell on dry land that had survived some of the worst drought on record. Almost 250 of the elephants in the Amboseli area succumbed during the famine years, leaving a painful hole in Moss’s life. Perhaps none of the deaths was more painful than the loss of Echo, a matriarch of an elephant family and a decades-long partner in Moss’s research.

Moss recounts how, on a May 2009 fundraising trip to the United States, she got a call that stopped her cold. Echo was dying. Moss had spent countless hours with the motherly pachyderm: She had spent years following her, chronicling her family life, learning the intimate details of her daily activities.

“I had to try to get back,” Moss said. “I knew I wouldn’t make it but I had to try.” When her wheels finally touched the ground it was too late for her old friend. Moss said all the staff mourned the loss of Echo; all cried for their old friend. Even now, Moss’s deep eyes began to tear at the loss.

Eastern Worries

Unfortunately for the elephants below Kilimanjaro, acts of nature are not their only enemies. The resource-hungry dragon that is Chinese growth may worry some in the U.S., but it also worries those with close ties to Africa.

While the West has largely ignored the “dark continent,” China has seen the light and decided that there are wealth and resources to be gained. A flood of investment and workers have poured onto African shores in search of new fortunes. Along with new factories, mines and roads there is a darker side. Some have accused the Chinese of exploiting Africa and its resources. Road construction camps are often populated with convicts promised shorter sentences for hard labor in Africa.

Unsavory characters that populate the camps have demands for local smugglers. Moss said two road camps sprung up near here. The workers wanted meat, including dogs, bush meat and tortoises. They also wanted something else more insidious: ivory.

A disturbing trend has again found its way to the Masai Mara. Mutilated elephant carcasses are turning up not far from road camps. The elephants are stripped of their tusks and trunks. Poaching had been a serious issue in the 1970s, but it appeared to have slowed down. Demand for ivory dropped in the West, so the cutting houses in China lost their market. But the Asian giants’ growing middle class has again renewed the demand for the precious tusks.

“The Chinese demand for ivory is huge,” said Moss. Now, African government officials are capturing shipments of ivory en route for China. “We know that whatever you get is a small percentage of the total.”

According to Moss, nearly 40,000 elephants are dying across Africa every year. At that rate, the species could be in serious trouble in less than a decade. While African governments are trying to address the problem, archaic laws fine smugglers around $10 because they have not been adjusted since poaching’s heyday.

Human Conflicts

Even well-meaning development is posing a threat to the great grey pachyderms. Schools have sprung up in the way of the elephants’ migration. Towns and irrigation projects cross paths with the wild animals outside the Amboseli’s borders. While elephants can seem docile and even friendly at times, they are still wild animals capable of killing a man with one swipe of their trunks.

The confrontations are inevitable when humans and elephants begin living in close proximity. Elephants destroy crops, kill livestock and occasionally trample people. With their borders shrinking, Moss worries about the animals’ future. “Land use change is very frightening for us,” she said. To compound the problem, the global economic crisis struck when donations were needed the most.

Instead of rising to meet the challenges of drought, poaching and development, Moss found herself wondering where money to fund current projects was going to come from. Moss was frank with the audience: “I need help and I’m here to ask for your help.”

The problems facing the elephants in Kenya may seem insurmountable to some. One might be tempted to toss their hands in the air and declare that the task before them was impossible but that person wouldn’t be Cynthia Moss. In the face of danger, loss and hardship Moss continues her work to preserve the families roaming Amboseli.

“You don’t do anything for 40-years unless you are passionate about it,” said Ludwig.

Ludwig watched closely as Moss studied elephants under the banner of other organizations and when the time came for her to start her own trust, Ludwig joined the board. “I’m a business man to begin with,” said Ludwig. “I’ve been going to Africa for 30 years and I sought out those who were doing the best work, the same as in real estate. I know Cynthia, and I know the good work she does.”

Despite the economic hardships for Amboseli, Moss is still continuing her work, still studying and combating poaching. The trust employs more than 20 field staff; many of them are local Masai. Part of combating poaching entails keeping a team of scouts who roam the plains looking for elephants and reporting illegal activity.

The Masai

Integrating the Masai people into the elephants’ conservation is crucial to Moss. “I care very much about the Masai, and they must benefit from the elephants.” Moss advocates what she calls “intelligent development” – working to not only preserve elephants but also help the people who have lived alongside them for centuries.

Moss said the life of the Masai is changing. They are shifting from semi-nomadic herders to farmers, and according to Moss, “You can’t have elephants and farms.”

But Moss said there shouldn’t be a conflict between bettering the Kenyan’s lives and preserving wildlife. “I want intelligent development done in such a way it isn’t detrimental to wildlife. Kenya has few natural resources. Their only natural resource is their wildlife and they need to be very cognizant of how they use that resource.” Moss said. “Conservation is in the hands of the Kenyan people.”

However, the people of Kenya are not alone. Moss provides compensation to Masai who lose livestock to elephants; she provides scholarships to Masai students and integrates the Masai into her conservation efforts.

With her team of locals, Moss is able to reach out to the people who live near the elephants and has built a reputation for listening to the people’s concerns. “She has taught the Masai women that the elephants are not the enemy,” said Ludwig.

Moss hopes to stop the encroachment of wildlands and promote jobs that can work in concert with the elephants, “It’s a massive job and there is still hope to keep (Amboseli) as a functioning natural ecosystem.” To Moss, understanding the way elephants behave by studying them helps the local people understand how to coexist with them.

Finding Support

To encourage donation and intimately involve donors in the lives of elephants, the trust offers a calf adoption program. For $2,500 a newborn calf can be named. The donor receives updates on the elephant throughout its life. Unlike other adoption programs where hundreds or thousands of people name a single animal, the Amboseli program is unique in its one-donor, one-calf approach.

The intimate and individual study of elephants is a distinguishing mark on Moss’s work. “We know every animal individually,” said Moss. She described following the elephants over her life like a family drama. Watching elephants fall out of favor or try to work back into a family. Seeing family disputes, watching the animals mourn their dead and seeing them raise the young. “Always the little calves make me laugh. They find unusual things like a piece of plastic and pick it up to wave around, then another calf will try to grab it.”

“The Calf will chase after birds and then get separated from its family. Suddenly it lifts up its trunk and makes a distress call. Then they run like a windup toy, with their ears out to the side looking for their family, and the others will rush out to meet it. They all have personalities, it’s like reading a good book: I don’t want it to end but I can’t put it down.”

Those last pages in the book are still unknown. There is a possibility that the conclusion could be the loss of one of earth’s great mammals. But Moss is fighting that ending and wants more people to join her.

Without Elephants

“At a philosophical level, the loss of something so complex would make the world a poorer place. On a practical level, elephants are a keystone species. If you pull a keystone out of the top of an arch, it collapses. Elephants keep the savannas open for other animals. Without them it would revert back to thick bush. 36 major species of trees cannot reproduce without their seeds going through an elephant’s digestive system and elephants are important to another 70 species of trees’ reproduction. The loss of elephants would be the loss of the central African forests,” said Moss.

Moss’s friend Ann Smith said, “She is shy about asking for money, but I’m not. She needs help and it’s important to know that she helps both people and animals.” Ludwig called Moss the very best in her class, and said that the trust operates simply. “There are no brand-new Land Rovers, no fancy offices and Cynthia flies coach everywhere she goes.”

Ludwig said he believes the trust is one of the most effective elephant conservation programs in existence and referred to Moss as “the last great lady naturalist.”

Moss was at the end of a 7-week fundraising trip across the United States, where she is attempting to raise funds for a new research center, hiring more scouts to fight poaching and bringing in money to continue her work with the elephants. To find out more about Moss and the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, visit www.elephanttrust.org.

This article was originally published on June 3, 2010 in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal.