Most of us will do anything to help family, especially our own offspring. Such is our unconscious desire to protect our own, that time and time again throughout history, men and women have sacrificed themselves for the sake of their family’s survival.
This behavioural trait, where all rational thought is dispelled and personal safety is but a blot on the horizon, is embedded in our genetic makeup and transcends the human species. In the animal kingdom, the same trait is displayed – irrefutable evidence that we share more with the wildlife that surrounds us than perhaps we realise.
With the exception of our closest relatives, the apes, the most emotive of animals that roam the land must be the mighty elephant. Their herds travel in large family groups, each member connected to the next by their shared genetic heritage. This unmeasurable power, that both links and surrounds them, acts like a matrix of universal consciousness.
Perhaps the most impressive display of their social harmony manifests when one of their calves, determined to test its limits at every opportunity, strays too close to harm. Its cries of distress whip up such a frenzy amongst its army of protectors that anyone or anything caught in the maelstrom will be lucky to live to tell the tale!
Last week, the students at Bushwise were lucky enough to witness such a display of this fascinating behaviour. A small watering hole offered the herd a brief but welcome respite from the sapping heat and parched conditions. As the herd filtered out of the riverine vegetation on the way to the water, we cooed at the arrival of a small calf, flanked on both sides by proud family members.
Its legs blurred as it tried to keep up with the adults’ increased strides as the odour of fresh water incited a sense of elephantine euphoria within them all! The group mingled around the water’s edge, rumbling with approval whilst dipping their trunks over the edge to the cooling waters beneath.
This mini precipice however proved a problem for the pint sized pachyderm in their midst. As it strained the very fibres of its trunk to reach the water, the bank gave way under its unstable feet. The small splash that followed was the catalyst for coordinated pandemonium to begin! A chorus of trumpets erupted from the startled herd, the power and intensity that it carried was enough to make us jump as one.
Those animals not directly situated by the waterhole took up a defensive perimeter, forming a circle of tusks pointing in all directions, whilst the rescue team went to work. The speed in which the rescue attempt and perimeter was deployed seemed military in both speed and efficiency, taking but a few mere seconds to coordinate. Frantic trunks probed the muddy pan like fisherman as they tried to snag the writhing youngster as it struggled to find traction in the now muddy waters, its thrashing not aiding the rescue attempt.
After a few moments however, the salvage team managed to find purchase on the calf and through a group effort of muscle power and finesse, bundled their prize to safety. The exact mechanism of the extraction was nothing more to us than a monochromatic blur of activity, but the speed of the operation was ruthlessly efficient, despite the chaotic scene unravelling before us. Safe but seemingly unharmed from its ordeal, the calf was shepherded from the water’s edge by its doting family before the whole herd came together as one and strode off into the undergrowth to regroup.
It was an emotionally charged scene whereby the students and I left trying to digest the fascinating array of behaviour that had been displayed in such a short but frantic few minutes! It is hard not to anthropomorphise the incident, but the crux of the matter needed no explanation. Nature has equipped every organism with the desire to ensure its genetic success and should that be jeopardised by something, be it a living threat or an environmental one, it will stop at nothing to protect it.