In 1968, Cynthia Moss made the life-changing decision to move to Africa to study elephants in northern Tanzania. Four years later, teaming up with Harvey Croze, she found ideal conditions for studying elephants in Amboseli National Park,  a protected area of 150 square miles in southern Kenya. Thus began what was to become the longest running African elephant field research project in the world. Her studies of more than 2,000 elephants (1,400 still living) in their natural habitat are the most comprehensive ever undertaken.

Cynthia Moss and Vida, 1991
Cynthia Moss and Vida, 1991

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 prime breeder who should be passing on his genes for health and longevity, not gracing the trophy room of a sport hunter.

Since its inception in 1972, AERP has monitored the Amboseli elephants, collecting data on all births, deaths, sightings and behavior, and has assembled identity records for each of the elephants in the population. This represents a wealth of data made possible only by such a long-term study of a relatively undisturbed, free-ranging population of African elephants.

Today, as a result, AERP is the critical source of baseline data on elephants.