Mon, 04/07/2014
A birth, a death, and the joys of being an elephant calf in Amboseli

Mobile scratching post - in the video above, mum's leg is usually available and is just the right size for a little elephant.

~~~

Elephant births in Amboseli are so rare to see. Our luckiest team member has only witnessed five in 30 years.

I’ve seen newborns within minutes of birth, but never the birth itself.

After coming back from a few days in Nairobi, I got a phone call from my colleague Katito, asking me to check a report of a female giving birth.

So I rushed to gather camera, binoculars, notebook and pens, and jumped into the Land Rover (my trusty steed). I drove as fast as I could, given both park speed limits and the slightly patchy nature of the roads.

The text came in: the calf was born, they saw the placenta drop. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for the tourists, and I was missing it.

I started to feel a bit apprehensive.

Births are rare to see for a good reason. They usually happen at night, under the cover of darkness.

Seeing a birth during the day often means something is going wrong, so I was now hoping just for a healthy calf.

I needn’t have worried. When I arrived, the calf was on her feet. She was very tall for a newborn. I recognised her mother as Three Holes, matriarch of the IA/IC family.

She has an odd name because she was a “floater” female – she must have lost her entire family. She was named “Three Holes Right” while Dr. Cynthia Moss tried to figure out who she was and where she came from, and the name stuck.

Between 1977 and 1980 (yes, we have been following the elephants here for that long) Three Holes attached herself to the IA family and eventually became the matriarch. (To read the full history of the IA/IC family, see the Family Histories on the ATE website.)

Her story typifies how flexible elephants can be in creating the social units they need, even if those aren’t composed of genetic family members. She is a lovely female, and I was happy to see that this calf was a daughter, who should carry on those brave leadership genes.

As I watched, Three Holes gently led her calf away from the birthing spot. Females do this to move vulnerable newborns away from the blood and birth fluids that can attract predators. Even though Three Holes must have been tired from the birth, she constantly touched, reassured and guided the calf. The sun was setting as she headed to join the family. I clicked a few stills, then went to set the camera to film mode, to capture the delightful wobble of first steps and the creation of a tender mother-calf bond that will last a lifetime.

But the battery ran out. I was cursing myself: I hadn’t expected to go to the field and so I didn’t check the battery packs I was carrying. Instead, I had to content myself with “just watching.” By this time the tourist cars were gone and I was alone with the elephants, watching the beginning of a new elephant life. It was very special.

First steps: Three Holes, with her new female calf tottering her first steps. The shadow you can see is Three Holes' oldest daughter, Ipomea, watching over her mother and baby sister in a golden Amboseli evening.

Back in camp, I checked the few shots I’d taken. My favourite, above, shows the shadow of Ipomea, Three Holes’ older daughter, protectively tailing her mother and new sister.

Things can change fast in the field.

The next morning brought a report of an elephant carcass, from one of our community scouts. The information was sketchy; the mobile phone network was poor and kept cutting out. Katito and I jumped in the car and headed out (this time with fully charged battery packs), and I prepared myself for what we would find.

An Elephant funeral; in the video above, elephants keep vigil over the carcass of a young male (foreground), touching and smelling him.

~~~

I expected to be moved, but I didn’t expect a funeral. When we arrived, there were seven other elephants keeping watch around the carcass. We sat back, waiting for Kenya Wildlife Service to arrive and giving the elephants time to do their thing.

They were quiet and very still. This was the first time I had seen elephants interact with a dead elephant, and I was curious to see how they would behave. They stood around calmly. Then the oldest bull moved away, and slowly the others followed. Another young male sniffed and gently touched the body. As KWS arrived, the elephants moved quietly away, and we approached.

There is nothing like stink of a three-day-old elephant carcass. It sticks with you until you brush your teeth. I was surprised that the elephants weren’t skittish, given how badly it smelled to my lowly human nose. It was a young bull, perhaps 23 or 24 years old. His tusks were intact. Although we checked his ears for identifying marks, elephants look so different lying down we couldn’t immediately identify him.

There were no wounds to indicate the cause of death; it’s possible a snake bit him, or that he was ill. KWS recovered the tusks and helped us to take the necessary photographs and measurements. As we all finished up and left him behind, I felt bad that I didn’t know who he was. But the elephants obviously knew, and reminding myself of that made me feel better.

The next day, my emotions came full circle again. Back with my study families, I was spending time with the GB family and filmed Goodness’ two-month-old calf. She had been mud bathing and was incredibly itchy. Turns out mum’s leg makes an excellent scratching post (see video). As I laughed and filmed, I realised again that emotion is what makes elephants so special.

They make us laugh and make us cry with both grief and joy.

--VF

For more information about IFAW efforts to protect elephants, visit our campaign page.

See video