GUEST POST by Praveen Siddannavar
Have you ever seen a newborn elephant? We were on a game drive in Maasai Mara National Park, Kenya, and my wife Shalini and I were focused on one of Mara’s great sights – a leopardess. She had just hunted down a porcupine and dragged it into a tree. With the 4×4 switched off, against the twilight sky, we waited in anticipation for the her to climb down so we could capture some more fantastic shots of her. However, she had other plans and chose to rest first.
During the wait, we observed a herd of elephants close by who were grazing on the fresh green grass. The young ones were playing around, making way for the matriarch as she moved through the herd. In a matter of minutes their calm demeanour seemed to change, and various types of loud vocalisations filled the air – from trumpeting to rumbles. We realised that something was going on that we could not see.
Trumpet calls are normally used during greetings, social events like courtship, welcoming a newborn or signalling danger.
Our Maasai driver, Sammy, said that this commotion could be due to the birth of a calf – the beginning of a new life. Was this the moment that every naturalist lives for?
Sammy then drove to the other side of the herd to get a better view. To our surprise about 12-15 elephants were in a huddle, swaying forwards and backwards and flapping their ears back and forth. Between the crowd of legs and trunks, we could just barely spot a tiny newborn calf lying on the grass – the mother’s placenta was still partly visible on the newborn. The trumpet calls continued and the air was abuzz with activity.
WATCH: The elephant herd huddles around the newborn calf © Praveen Siddannavar
It is moments like these that everything else takes a backseat. For us as naturalists, witnessing the birth of an elephant calf was a first. Even for Sammy this was special – only his second witnessing of the birth of an elephant calf in his eight years as a guide.
Each elephant was seen taking turns to welcome the newborn, gently touching him with their trunk and helping and motivating the calf to stand on his feet.
The newborn was struggling to stand, but kept trying despite several failed attempts. Each time he fell the rumbling and trumpeting was louder and the elephants reached out with their trunks to comfort and help the newborn get on his feet.
The herd was extremely possessive and protective in shielding the mother and her newborn – you could barely see them through the maze of legs and trunks. The exhausted mother was still bleeding but her family stood by her, gently nudging and motivating her.
Witnessing the rituals of this family herd, which included them burying the mother’s placenta in the ground to ensure the scent of fresh blood doesn’t attract predators, left us absolutely spellbound and in awe.
Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for much longer, as twilight was giving way to the darkness that was enveloping the land, and we knew that it was time for Sammy to turn the 4×4 around and head back to camp. That evening at the dinner table we recounted every moment that we captured in our memories and on our cameras – it was something that we would never forget.
The following morning we decided to drive to the same location, as we were sure that the herd wouldn’t have moved far with the newborn. Fortunately we were right in our assumptions.
Bathed in the golden light of the morning, the newborn was making his presence known – now strong enough to walk amongst the herd. Under the constant encouragement of his herd and gently pampered by his mother, his made small, wobbly steps as he kept up with his family.
As naturalists, we often witness the drama between predator and prey, but to be privy to the start of a new life… now that is an incredible experience.
WATCH: The newborn calf, not even a day old, walks amongst his family © Praveen Siddannavar