Why would you name an elephant? The short answer is that it makes our jobs as monitors and researchers easier and to avoid confusion in the management of them.
If the elephants already have names, we will carry on using these names. If they do not have names, we will give them names following the established protocol for elephant research - which is to give the members of one family group names starting with the same letter. To ensure that the elephants’ names are not for show, we aim to choose names that describe a particular characteristic of each elephant. We also choose names derived from the local languages in the region. A great example is at Samara Private Game Reserve. Every member of that family has a name starting with N. It is the N-family. The matriarch, Nombeko, was named so as it means respect in Xhosa, a local language in that particular region - and a name worthy of a leader.
There has been some debate as to whether or not one should name animals - and elephants in particular. By some in the industry it is viewed as soft or as a weakness, as anthropomorphism or even as emotional exploitation of followers on social media. Anthropomorphism is to assign human characteristics, emotions, and thinking to an animal, in essence you are humanizing the animals. An extreme of this is Disneyfication. A continually widespread phenomenon seen on social media platforms. As an animal researcher this is a complete no-go. Avoiding anthropomorphism has been drilled into every student of zoology, ecology, ethology and other branches of the biological sciences.
There are a number of reasons why ERP chooses to name elephants or to use existing elephant names. One is that ERP is following the protocol established by one of the world’s most prominent elephant scientists, Dr Cynthia Moss. During her studies of elephants in Kenya beginning in the 1960s, she named elephants according to family relations, i.e. all members of a family group had a name starting with the same letter. ERP is using this same protocol now, some 40 years or so later on. Another reason is for monitoring purposes. When monitoring elephants and observing their behaviour, knowing the animals as individuals gives you a better understanding of the behaviour they are displaying, their temperament, their internal relationships in the group, and the dynamics between them. A third reason for naming the elephants is simply to avoid confusion in their management, such as in monitoring plans and identification kits.
When we name elephants we aim to use an identifying characteristic as the name. This is simple and logical association; the connection between the individual and the identifying characteristic - and hence the name. An example is Noluvo, a temperamental young female at Samara Private Game Reserve. Her temper is one of her defining characteristics - and her name, Noluvo, means opinion in Xhosa. The association between individual elephant, defining characteristic and name helps us when observing behaviour and when having to convey the identity of an elephant to others. If there is logic behind the name, it is usually easier to remember and to distinguish one elephant from the other.
In naming elephants there will be a risk of encountering the perception that the elephants are being anthropomorphised. Elephants are cognitive, intelligent creatures that in many ways are, or seem to be, very similar to humans. However, it is up to the researchers and monitors to uphold their professionalism and ensure that anthropomorphising does not occur when monitoring and collecting data. Using a different identification system, such as numbers or a combination of letters and numbers, may help create a distance between people observing, viewing, and/or managing elephants. When monitoring elephants and when collecting data on elephant behaviour, it is vital that the monitor and researcher upholds this distance - both physically and mentally. We are there to learn about and from the elephants, not to interact with them. The staff working for and with ERP are competent and qualified people that are more than capable of ensuring that this professionalism is upheld - and can make difficult decisions whether or not an elephant has a name or not. An identification system of numbers, or of a combination of letters and numbers, risks leading to confusion when identification of a specific individual is needed. And people on the ground - whether they are reserve staff, guides or residents - have a tendency to make up their own names, if none exists beforehand. This can lead to much unnecessary confusion and misinformation in situations where a positive identification is imperative.
As mentioned, elephants are named to alleviate confusion and mix-ups and to create safe and successful interactions with each individual. ERP has no intentions of Disneyfication, anthropomorphising, and emotional exploitation, when publicising said named elephants on social media. We are, however, well aware that said naming might be perceived as such. In a world, where emotional exploitation is a common, yet - in our eyes, a reprehensive tool used for manipulation of an intended audience, rest assured that we do not name elephants for clickbait or the “aaaw-factor”, it is merely a tool of identification and show of respect for the local language and culture. We publicise the names to ensure transparency and to include our followers and supporters in our day-to-day work - a glimpse behind the scenes of what they are supporting.
One way to reduce the risk of anthropomorphising elephants is to avoid naming elephants after people. If animals are named after a particular person, you may be actively projecting that person’s characteristics, temperament etc. onto that particular elephant. Or it may distract you from the task at hand. When observing the elephant, you might subconsciously have that person at the back of your mind and this may potentially influence your observations. This is avoided by basing the name on a defining characteristic of that individual elephant. Another example of a name given based on a characteristic is Gogo Gina at Buffalo Kloof Private Game Reserve. She was named Gina by the owners of the reserve, and ERP added Gogo to her name. Gogo originates from Zulu and means grandmother - an apt name for an experienced matriarch estimated to be approximately 45-50 years old.