Is love in the air for a young Zambia elephant orphan?

Chamilandu, an eight year old orphan elephant cared for at the Kafue Release Facility, of Game Rangers International, in Zambia, is showing positive signs of being on the cusp of sexual maturity.Chamilandu – or Chamma – an eight-year-old elephant orphan raised nearly her entire life at the Elephant Orphanage Project in Zambia, is going through “changes” and, like any adolescent female, is attracting interest from the opposite sex.

Chamma has gone into oestrus. In the wild, elephants don’t normally do so before 10-14 years of age, but when elephants grow up in semi-captive situations they often start as young as seven or eight.

She has displayed sexually mature behaviours towards Chodoba, at 10 years old, the Elephant Orphanage Project’s oldest male elephant.

She has even spent a night out in the bush with him.

Consequently, while we don’t often see wild male bulls near our boma, we spotted one who had assumedly come calling the night after her tryst with Chodoba.

The wild bull may have picked up her scent or heard her; females in oestrus flick their tails sending out pheromones to advertise their reproductive state, and emit a low infrasonic call while in oestrus. Both may draw bulls from as far as kilometres away.

Orphaned at 18-months in the South Luangwa National Park when her mother was shot by poachers, Chamma was a strong, healthy calf but boisterous and given to nightmares following the loss of her mother and family.

Thanks to diligent care by our keepers she settled down and has been showing her matriarchal instincts for some time, mothering the younger calves and ensuring they are welcomed into the herd.

Her passage to maturity has posed a few challenges. Every day our keepers take our resident herd of elephants out into the bush to walk and browse and generally learn wild elephant behavior. The last thing we need is a hormonal bull raging towards the orphans and keepers in a bid to reach Chamilandu.

By keeping an eye out for certain behaviours (oestrus isn’t regular to begin with) we will be able to predict in advance when oestrus will take place (about every 15-16 weeks) and plan accordingly.

We might keep our walks to open areas so as to keep an eye open for bulls at a distance, and ensure that a vehicle is handy to allow the keepers to be safe.

Females at Chamma’s age are always quite brave in attracting male interest, but it’s another matter altogether when a bull more than double their age is running across the savannah with one thing only on his mind. Her instinct is to turn to her primary caregivers, her keepers – and their safety is a priority.

The good news is Chamma might one day become pregnant. Only elephants in good condition come into oestrus and animals reproducing are a sign of good welfare.

Chamma’s growing up!

The generous support of IFAW’s donors and John and Jenny Cason last year enabled GRI’s Elephant Orphanage Project to build a sturdy three-hectare outer boma (paddock) at the Kafue Release Facility.

The boma allows the older, weaned orphans the opportunity to move freely, socialise and forage throughout the night – three essential behaviours that are typical of wild elephants and that the orphans must be comfortable with before they can return to the wild.

--SD

The Elephant Orphanage Project is a project of Game Rangers International, established by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, in close collaboration with the Zambia Wildlife Authority and International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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