SLIDESHOW: Remarkable, elusive birth of a baby elephant calf caught in pictures

Daryl Balfour is a former newspaper journalist turned wildlife author and photographer. In the early 1990 he and his wife Sharna spent four years tracking elephants across Africa for their book African Elephants – A Celebration of Majesty. One image eluded them – the birth of an elephant calf.

Then, in December 2010, more than 20 years after he began photographing wildlife fulltime, the dream came true! IFAW is delighted to be able to share with you these remarkable and touching pictures of the birth of a baby elephant. --Christina Pretorious

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It is almost nine am, the last day of the safari in the Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana, and about time to head back to camp for the flight out later in the morning.

But then I notice one elephant among a small herd browsing nearby behaving oddly, lagging behind the others and then lying down at the side of a small mound before rising awkwardly to her feet again.

I take a closer look with the binoculars and mutter to my driver: “She looks VERY pregnant!”

The cow stands, shakes her head vigorously, and lets loose a low rumbling trumpet.

Several older cows in her herd turn back and stare her way.

Minutes later I notice the first signs that I’m about to see my long dreamed-for birth...the emergence of a milky-white amniotic sac at the exit of the elephant’s birth canal. Unlike most four-legged ungulates, elephants do not deliver their young from beneath the tail, but rather through a complex birth canal that emerges penis-like on the belly in front of its hind legs.

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Parturition occurred in seconds, an easy birth, and according to the timeline on my camera from the first appearance of the sac to the calf lying on the ground took exactly 1 min 13 seconds!

No epidural, no Caesar, no gynae!

But then the most amazing and touching sequence of events started.

As soon as she had delivered her baby the mother rumbled excitedly, and this was immediately echoed by the herd who rushed to her side. Adult cows, teenagers and even young calves clamoured to see the new arrival and a cacophony of rumbling, trumpeting and squealing ensued.

The excitement was palpable, and two young calves, excluded by the bulk of the others in the herd from getting a good view, went down on their knees and crawled underneath them to get closer!

Remarkably the herd paid no attention to our presence and proximity, even when we moved the 4x4 to get a slightly better view of proceedings.

I was also amazed to see how the other members of the herd started churning up the damp soil, creating what I called a “birthing pit” perhaps in an attempt to make it easier for the newly born calf to stand up, or give him a soft bed on which to fall each time he stumbled.

Then an older cow, possibly the matriarch of this herd and the grandmother of the newborn, lowered herself to the ground alongside the small calf and gazed gently at the new member of her family!

She made no attempt to touch the baby however, but lay alongside it as if to give shelter from a slight breeze.

The smaller of the two older calves by this stage had crawled right through the massive forest of legs and was now attempting to burrow under the tiny newborn, without any doubt trying to assist it in raising itself to its feet for the first time.

Repeatedly it pushed its head under the tiny calf and shoved with all its might in an effort to lift it from the ground!

The whole time there was a gentle rumbling sound coming from the excited herd, and both the mother and other adult cows used their feet in their efforts to help the tiny calf to its feet.

On several occasions it stumbled and fell head first back into the soft mound the others had churned up, but eventually, after 48 minutes, the infant managed to stay upright long enough to find its mother’s teat and have its first suckle of life-sustaining milk and colostrum.

All the while its new-found friend, the smallest of the calves in the herd, waited close nearby, supporting the infant if needed.

The whole time the rest of the herd stood close-by, seemingly fascinated by the arrival of a new member of the herd and determined not to miss a moment of its first minutes and hours of life.

Finally, after almost two hours, the calf was steady on its feet and taking its first tentative steps. Amazingly, the calf and his mother walked towards us...as if the mother was showing off her calf.

After a brief hiccup as the calf battled to clamber over a fallen tree branch, the herd moved off in unison, and elated, I rushed to catch my waiting flight!

--DB

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Cynthia Moss, IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
Director, International Environmental Agreements
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Regional Director, South Asia