Wild baby elephants are more vulnerable in their first year of life than one might think. Just surviving the crossing of a raging river can be quite a feat.
But when members of their own elephant herd turn against them the situation is often dire. It is a cruel act of nature one will never understand.
“Across Africa, from Namibia to Uganda, elephant babies are trying to keep their heads above water, trying to suckle, to keep up with the herd to make it to adulthood. But one third of baby elephants will die in this first year of life. And sometimes the threat to a baby’s survival comes from within the herd.
It has been a good year. The elephant herds of Uganda are increasing. In the 1980s they were poached to the brink of extinction in the country. Now there are more than 5000 individuals. The land is green. There is plenty to eat. Newborns are almost lost in the grass.
It takes a whole herd to raise a baby elephant. Female elephants help look after each other’s calves. It is called alloparenting. In the process, young females learn how to care for their siblings and calves are given a better chance of survival.”
“The babies are born after almost two years of gestation. This long development time gives them another survival advantage. They can stand and walk immediately after birth so they can reach their mother’s milk. They will rely on it for the first year. Each day the baby elephant gains almost 1kg, or two pounds of body weight.
Scientists have discovered that the composition of elephant milk differs from that of all other mammals, as well as being different for Asian and African elephants. It actually changes as the baby grows. The protein, mineral and fat content increases during lactation providing more energy as the baby develops.”
“But despite the best care a herd can offer about one third of baby elephants will die in this first year of life. They will never reach adulthood.There are many threats.
Water, the thing elephants need the most can also kill them. (Adults need to drink up to 189 liters, or 50 gallons a day.)
Despite the raging torrents, the family has to cross. But babies cannot swim until they are several months old. Adults have evolved ways to push their young along. They used their trunks like arms to usher them to safety.”
“In Namibia, water is not always plentiful. But elephants can smell it from up to around 19 kilometers or 12 miles away. This herd is making a beeline for a man-made watering spot in Etosha National Park.”
“A new study has found that in warm weather elephants can lose up to 10% of all the water in their bodies. That equates to about two full bathtubs a day. The highest level of daily water loss ever recorded in a land mammal. It is a relief to drink. But still the herd must stay alert.
Baby elephants are intelligent little beings but they are not born with the instinct to use their most important appendage- their trunk. They cannot use it to grasp food or to suck up water. This can make drinking awkward and precarious.
A youngster falls into the trough. He calls to alert the adults. The herd reacts in unison. The water is not deep but the panicked baby could easily drown. The trough is narrow and hard to access. The females can only watch on while the youngster remains stuck. Many trunks but no rescue until a mature female finally lifts him to safety.”
“Even at natural water holes like this one in Namibia, where there is plenty of room to move female elephants must stay calm when dealing with emergencies so as not to panic others in their herd, especially their calves.
Mud baths should be enjoyable not traumatic. This matriarch gives a youngster a helping trunk, a lesson for baby and another young member of the herd.”
“But elephant society is not always so cooperative. Researchers at Mushara Waterhole in Namibia have witnessed a darker side of the elephants’ nature, where danger does not lie outside the herd but within it.
This baby and his mother are chased away from the water by the matriarch. The calf just wants some fun but he is sent back to his mother by the other females. Despite living with the herd for the last five years, the mother is left to care for her baby alone. Most of the herd begins to move on, turning their backs on the mother and her calf. Two females even throw irritating dust at the pair.”
“The baby has become weak. The stress of rejection may have left the mother unable to produce enough milk. The calf needs to drink around 2 liters of milk every 2 hours. He is getting weaker by the second and is now unable to stand up to feed. If he does not drink soon he will die of dehydration.”
“Why is this baby destined to die while others are saved? Researchers think this cruel behavior is evidence of a pecking order within the herd. Each elephant has their place in the hierarchy and that status is passed down through generations. This is not in keeping with our perception of elephant behavior. Herds can break up in places where poaching occurs but not usually in places like this, where the herd is protected and there is enough food and water.
Here in the Namibian desert resources are scarce. No baby gets left behind. Each one of them is precious.
Elephant herds are complex societies. We can only observe and try to understand the dynamics at work within them. In understanding their behavior at much deeper levels we may also be able to help them survive.” Source (1)
Images & transcribed from Creative Commons video by Terra Mater, “Why so many African Elephants Don’t Survive their First Year” (1)
(1) Creative Commons video by Terra Mater, “Why so many African Elephants Don’t Survive their First Year” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8tmKfkaaYQ
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