"It was like babies were falling out of the sky," said Dr Moss, who heads the Amboseli Trust for Elephants
One early morning in July, Dr. Cynthia Moss went to work to see the elephants she cares for at Kenya's Amboseli National Park.
The park was empty, usually crowded with hatch-top safari jeeps full of tourists, a by-product of a coronavirus pandemic which has caused border closures and brought wildlife tourism in Africa to a halt, reports The Telegraph.
Eliot, an adult female elephant, had just given birth to a baby boy. An hour later, Eliot's daughter, Ntito, gave birth too. The two newborns are part of a record string of births at Amboseli, in southern Kenya, this year. So far, 207 elephants have been born, a number unseen in the park's 48 years of existence. And it could continue to rise.
"It was like babies were falling out of the sky," said Dr Moss, who heads the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.
Kenya's elephant population has more than doubled since 1989, reaching nearly 35,000 by the end of 2019. The country's government credits the rise to successful efforts to halt poaching, which includes stiffer fines and prison sentences for poachers.
This year, the rise is not due to the absence of tourists – the gestation period for elephant pregnancies can last up to two years – but to environmental factors.
Elephants need rainfall to conceive. With adequate rain, vegetation grows, and the females can store up enough fat to ovulate and get pregnant. In 2017, the region was hit by a severe drought and virtually no pregnancies were found. When the drought ended in 2018, the females who gave birth this year were able to become pregnant.
"With climate change, we are expecting to see more extreme weather events. That means more frequent drought and heavy rainfall events," said Vicky Boult, a researcher in conservation biology at the University of Reading.
"In times of drought, the lack of food prevents elephants getting pregnant. But when the rains return, all elephants gain condition, become fertile and get pregnant, almost in unison."
The biggest concern for elephants when it comes to climate change is their need for large amounts of fresh water, and the influence this has on their daily activities, reproduction and migration, according to WWF.
The births have given hope to conservationists in Kenya and beyond amid a particularly difficult year. Tourism is the largest source of funding for wildlife protection projects, and with the tourists staying home, conservation groups are struggling to raise money. This will lead to a slowdown in research and cuts in anti-poaching patrols, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Dr Moss stays hopeful. At Amboseli, "everyone wants to come and see the babies now," even though the visitor numbers have down and mostly come from the capital Nairobi nowadays.
Since July, Eliot and Ntito's babies, both male, have spent all of their time together.
"I think they're going to be inseparable for life," Dr Moss added.