It was Ebony who kept the family together, in the face of vicious slaughter and unspeakable tragedy. She was the last matriarch of the Hardwoods, a group of elephants that George Wittemyer and his colleagues have been getting to know since 1997.
When he first met the Hardwoods at Kenya’s Samburu National Park, they comprised three core families led by four old females, each over 40 years old. Three of them—Teak, Mahogany, and Sandalwood—were killed between 2001 and 2002. “The survivors maintained strong bonds through all of this, at times staying together closely for months, as if they were one single large family,” says Wittemyer. “I think this was driven largely by the leadership of Ebony.”
She was a singular elephant. Even though she had survived a gunshot wound and had lived through the death of three sisters, “she never displayed anger towards us,” says Wittemyer. “She passed down that attitude to her daughters and nieces. Taking her lead, the Hardwoods have become one of the calmest groups in the park.”
Ebony was killed in 2011. By the time the researchers found her body, it had already been decaying for weeks. There were multiple bullet wounds in her head, and an AK-47 bullet lodged in her skull. Her death was part of a long season of intense poaching, which started with a drought in 2009 and carried on until 2014. “We have so many stories of this terrible process: watching elephants being born, growing up to become mothers in their own right, and then dying for their teeth,” says Wittemyer. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, more than 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa for their ivory.