It’s always a wonderful celebration when an elephant is born at Tintswalo Safari Lodge.
Not just because elephants are often the victims of poaching, and we need to treasure each animal; it’s just wonderful to watch a baby elephant begin its life in the bush, and observe how the herd receives the new addition to the family.
This month, while on a safari game drive, we were privileged to stumble upon a newborn elephant in the Manyeleti, and we watched in amazement at the way the baby was treated by the rest of the herd. We witnessed the entire mood of the herd change, as the rest of the elephants took the young calf on as their own.
Of course, the calf was quite obviously the apple of his mother’s eye. She simply could not stop touching him with her trunk as he craned his head upward and suckled her gently.
The Coming of Age of a Baby Elephant
Baby elephants will stay very close to their mothers for the first couple of months of their lives.
The calves drink their mother’s milk for about two years, sometimes longer, and they can drink up to three gallons of milk each day! At about four months old, they also begin eating plants, but they continue to need as much milk from their mother. Some elephants keep drinking milk for up to ten years!
A very young baby always travels under the mother’s belly, between her legs, to ensure its safety, and in order for the mother to assist overcoming obstacles, and to keep him cool. During normal activities, baby elephants are seldom more than one or two meters from an adult (the mother is always nearby) and they are constantly being touched as reassurance.
From a relatively early age, the other female elephants in the herd practise mothering or ‘nannying’, during which time they guide calves, assisting them over obstacles, teaching them what to eat (some calves even remove food from other elephants’ mouths to learn what to eat) and protecting them just like the mother does.
Trunks of fun
At first, baby elephants don’t really know what to do with their trunks. It’s amusing to watch as the calves swing them to and fro and sometimes even step on them. They will stick their trunk in their mouth just as a human baby might suck its thumb. With more than 50,000 individual muscle units in the trunk, it’s a complex skill to learn.
By about 6 to 8 months, calves begin learning to use their trunks to eat and drink. By the time they are a year old, they can control their trunks pretty well and, like adult elephants, use their trunks for grasping, eating, drinking, bathing.
Elephants usually figure out the trunk-drinking method by the time they’re one year old. As in all young mammals, elephants are born with a strong sucking reflex, which prompts them to drink from their mothers’ breast. And when a youngster is not feeding, it may suck its trunk for comfort.
They practise using their trunks by exploring their environment – touching fellow herd members, their surroundings and themselves. They must then master the use of their trunks for feeding.
Sometimes an elephant that appears to be sucking its trunk is actually using it to smell, placing the tip inside its mouth after touching or sniffing dung or urine to assess pheromones produced by other elephants.
Elephants learn to do all these important things in their first years in the herd, as they observe their mother, their nannies, and their fellow young siblings. Female elephants stay with the herd for life, while males leave to begin a solitary life at about 12 to 14 years of age.
The early stage of an elephant’s life is incredibly important, and the mothering and mentorship ensures that they grow up to become the best possible elephant they can be, to both survive and thrive in the wilderness.