Interview with Cynthia Moss, 1999

Wed, 2007-12-05 16:39 by admin · Forum/category:

November 1, 1999
By Marge Mueller
(abridged and edited)

Full of glee and mirth pachyderms trumpet, rumble and intertwine trunks. Viscous tears stream down temporal glands as they back into each other rubbing sides in pure elephantine joy. For on this night Echo, the matriarch, has given birth.

There it is!

In sea of mammoth gray legs a wide-eyed wobbly calf emerges, still slippery from birth's fluids. Anxious hyenas call under the bright African moon.

"It certainly turned out to be a very special occasion," says world-renowned elephant researcher Cynthia Moss. "It was really amazing to be with them at night and to see Ebony being born."

Moss, director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya, has studied the same population of elephants for almost 30 years. Currently, the population at Amboseli National Park stands at 988 elephants, although it has fluctuated between 600 and 1,100 for the past 20 years.

The opportunity to work with African elephants proved to be pure chance for Moss. She quit her job at "Newsweek" to work with leading elephant researcher Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton in Tanzania.

"That was just luck. I might have ended up studying cheetahs or something. I don't think I would've stayed as long," says Moss, who has been at Amboseli since 1972.

The birth of Ebony was only the fourth elephant birth witnessed by Moss during her 27-year vigil at Amboseli.

"It's really very, very few when you consider how many births there have been,"

Moss says. "It's just that they're at night with a few exceptions."

She witnessed Ebony's nighttime birth with the aid of special infrared goggles.

British filmmaker Martyn Colbeck captured the event on film with a camera outfitted with infrared capabilities.

The researcher cherishes her time with the elephants. She sits for hours at a time in her Land Rover simply observing the animals' behavior.

"It's very rewarding," she says. "I also feel very privileged to be able to be so close amongst them and have them accept my presence."

Moss believes there are few dangers involved in watching such large creatures up close. She does note one exception.

"The only animals that may be dangerous are the big musth (sexually active) bulls," Moss says. "We try to give them a wide berth.

One bull in particular has wreaked havoc on Moss and her colleagues over the years. Because of his nasty disposition Moss decided to name him Bad Bull. Her latest run-in with Bad Bull, the largest elephant in Amboseli, happened a few years ago.

"He sort of ambushed me," Moss recalls. "He hid behind a palm tree and came rushing out, charging our vehicle. We only just got away."

Scary when one considers a bull elephant Bad Bull's age (50-55 years) can weigh more than 14,000 pounds.

Moss knows each elephant in the park by name. Of the elephants living in Amboseli, there are more than 200 independent bulls. The rest make up more than 50 matriarchal family groups. These families include adult females and their adult daughters as well as their male and female juvenile calves. Males usually become independent at about age 14.

Each family group member's name's begin with the letter "E"—Ebony, Ely, Enid, Edwina and so on. The EB family has grown from seven members, when Moss first met Echo in 1973, to its 20 current members.

Moss believes many things make elephants unique, including their intelligence, longevity and family structure.

"Their very complex, multi-tiered social lives makes them special," Moss says. "They have a very large network of relationships, probably larger than any other land mammal."

Perhaps the rainy season, when food is abundant, is her favorite time to observe the elephants.

"They are feeling the joys of Spring," she says. "There are a lot of social interactions, a lot of vocalizations, and a lot of interesting behavior. You can feel a sense of their own contentment.

"My least favorite time to be around them is in a drought. We just had one, a short one, in this year but it wasn't so bad. I guess the last bad one was in '91."

Unfortunately, with elephants comes ivory poaching, trophy hunting or other reasons for killing them. Moss' emotions suffer with each elephant death at Amboseli.

"I think the worst was when the female named Tuskless was shot in retaliation for a (domestic) cow being killed," she recalls. "It was clear she wasn't the one that killed the cow. She was the most trusting. I mean she came into the camp virtually every day."

These days Moss tries to spend at least one week per month at Amboseli. She also maintains a residence in Nairobi, Kenya, and travels abroad doing lectures and fund-raising events for the project. For her, elephant research has become all-consuming.

"I don't do anything else," Moss says. "I bemoan this. I should get a hobby."

Regarding not having a family, she says, "A part of me regrets it, but it's not a huge regret. If I had to do this over I would."

Moss does have a sister in the U.S. and says they remain close. At her house in Nairobi she keeps four cats and two dogs.

"Just mongrels," says Moss, who adopts her pets from the Kenya Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals. "I believe in getting dogs from them rather than pedigreed dogs. My cats come from there, too."

One of the most frustrating things for Moss is having to work in a third world country.

"It's very hard," she says. "Things like vehicle breakdowns and supplies. It's a lot of hard stuff."

Moss grew up along the Hudson River. She was an avid horse rider. She attended high school at Southern Seminary in Virginia, where she participated in their riding program. After graduating Moss attended Smith College in Massachusetts. Then she worked as a reporter for "Newsweek." Eventually she moved to Africa to begin her career as an elephant researcher in Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park.

Moss has written four books including "Portraits in the Wild," "Elephant Memories Thirteen Years in the Lives of Elephants," "Echo of the Elephants" and "Little Big Ears The Story of Ely ." She also introduced elephants to television viewers with her three documentary films which include "Echo of the Elephants," "Echo of the Elephants: The Next Generation," and "The Elephants of Africa."

"I think they are raising people's awareness of elephants and how important it is to conserve them, and that we'd be losing something very precious and wonderful in life," Moss says. "One of the wonders of life. If they disappear we'd be much poorer."

Echo, who is about 55 years old, has been one of the primary subjects of Moss' books and films. She chose Echo as her central character because of the matriarch's symmetrical tusks and the predictability of Echo's migration patterns.

Of her selection of Echo, Moss explains, "I wanted to have an elephant matriarch that the audience could recognize easily. And I thought she would be one I could find more easily. She's also very beautiful. And it turned out to be perfect."

When asked who has been most influential in her life Moss laughs softly and says, "Oh, Echo I think."