Art, Writing, Jokes, Animals, Videos
Kruger National Park, 2012
My friend asked me if I’d write up a bit about the experience I had in Kruger in November, 2009, when I lucked upon an amazing scene.
I’d been driving north from Satara camp toward Letaba.
It was a stinking hot day and, as it was approaching noon and most animals were content with settling under some scrap of shade,
I was heading back for some lunch and a rest before heading back.
I stopped on the bridge over the Olifants River to get out stretching my legs.
The cool thing about this bridge (and a few others) is that is one of the few places where it’s deemed safe to get out and stretch your legs.
If you’re not familiar with Kruger, one of the beauties of this park is that you can drive freely just about anywhere where there is a road.
But you have to stay in your vehicle except for certain designated areas, such as the rest camps.
The bridges are long enough that I think it is felt that as long as you stay in the middle of the bridge (and it’s marked by painted lines), it’s safe to get out.
And these bridges are good areas for wildlife viewing because there is often a lot of activity around the rivers.
On this day, there were a group of elephants in the water, cooling off, and a number of the juveniles were just having a blast in the water.
They were rolling and spraying each other, jumping on each other’s backs – just having fun time. It was an irresistible occasion for photography.
I’d spent I’d estimate close to an hour photographing these guys. Understand that at any given point, there were a handful of people standing on the bridge. Most people would come and watch for a short while and then get into their air conditioned car to go look for something more dramatic. But, just as I was about to pack it in myself, I heard someone from the north end of the bridge call out, “Hey, this one’s having a baby!”
I grabbed my cameras and ran down to that end of the bridge. And I began to see something I never thought I’d have the privilege of seeing in my life.
When I first arrived, I looked down on a smallish elephant, standing in the water with a large amniotic sac protruding out of her.
At this point, there was no doubt what was going on here….
And in a few seconds, the baby splashed into the water amidst a great amount of trumpeting from the new mother.
The river here is obviously not very deep – I’d guess that it is something in the neighborhood of 0.5 meters deep. But the baby cannot stand and as it thrashes in the water it seems that it could be in some danger of not being able to keep its head above water. The mother seems confused at first. But quickly a nearby female – larger and I’d presume older and perhaps more experienced – seemed to step in and assume command. I think of her as an older ‘aunt‘, though obviously I can’t know the relationships between these elephants.
She began to take charge and work with her trunk and her foot to support the baby and to keep the baby’s head above water.
Mother and ‘aunt’ continue to try and hold the baby’s head out of the water while the amniotic sac floats away downstream.
Even as mother and aunt worked frantically to support the baby, many others from this group of elephants began to gather around
and form a protective phalanx, encircling the new addition to their extended family.
Baby continues to thrash helplessly in the water while many of the other elephants formed a protective phalanx around the newborn.
Note that even the mother has turned away from the baby, leaving only the aunt to continue to try and prop the baby’s head up.
Adult uses both trunk and leg to help support the baby and keep its head above the water.
Note that baby’s ears are still ‘glued’ back on its head!
According to my image data, it was about 25 to 30 minutes after birth before the newborn began to gain its legs in any sort of a reliable way, and even that was not without incident!
Baby’s first few steps were not without incident. Luckily ‘auntie’ was there to intervene.
After perhaps 40 minutes, the baby was able to ambulate in mother’s company fairly reliably, and mother steered baby to the river on the other side (the west side) of the bridge, separating her from the rest of the group. The mother actually seemed to complain loudly when auntie approached and auntie backed off.
Something was going on there in terms of their relationships. I don’t know if the mother was basically telling auntie to ‘Butt out!’
but I am certain that it was auntie who seemed to know what to do and did most of the work in those first few critical minutes.
Once baby began to ambulate fairly reliably in the water, baby took the lead….
Mother made several attempts to steer baby out of the river, including this effort to nudge the baby out onto the bank.
Mother attempts to nudge baby out of the river, unsuccessfully.
Mother later attempted to help engineer the bank to make it easier for baby to walk out of the river….
Baby takes mother for one more romp around the river.
At this point, I’d been standing in the sun on this bridge for perhaps two hours. The place had become packed with people – I don’t know whether people phone friends or what,
but the bridge was crowded with people and cars, and I decided it was time to head back. My hands and my knees were shaking.
I knew that I’d had the privilege of seeing something extraordinary.
I have since discovered that there are very few photographed accounts of African elephant births in the wild and I can’t find any reference to births in water.
To me, the most interesting question is, why?
Why drop a baby into a river?
Was there some reason for this?
Obviously, it’s easier for a newborn to stand if the water helps to support its weight. On the other hand, the newborn could not stand for some time and during that time seemed to be in real danger of drowning. I’ll share my impression, but bear in mind that I’m not a trained naturalist, let alone an expert in elephant behavior. But I got the impression that the mother was young and inexperienced. She was certainly smaller than ‘auntie’. She seemed completely at a loss as to what to do when the baby first hit the water and, in my opinion, the intervention of the aunt was critical to keeping the baby from drowning in those first few minutes.
Is it possible that this was a first delivery for this cow?
Is it possible that she didn’t realize what was happening, and what was going to happen, when she stepped into the river on that blazing hot day?
I’d be very interested in your views on the question.
I do know that I left the bridge that afternoon and my hands and my knees were shaking. I knew I’d seen something extraordinary.
I also know now that there are people who’ve studied elephants their entire lives – heroes of mine –
who’ve never had the opportunity that I was given while driving around Kruger in my little rental car.
The bridge over the Olifants is a place I will always remember and I often think of that little guy, who will now be approaching his third birthday, and wonder how he’s doing.
N.B. Can’t find the name of the person who wrote this. If you know can you let me know please? Thanks 🙂