By Michelle Henley
We got the call from Mark Shaw, the Warden of Umbabat Private Nature Reserve, just after 05h00 who said a "small elephant calf” was seen wondering around Ingwelala camp on its own the night before. A search party was sent out by the Warden as lions were in the area but to no avail. I notified our elephant tracking team who had already left for the field looking for collared study animals.
After a while they reported that they had found the small diminutive and dehydrated female calf. Although she was grazing and browsing efficiently she was tiny and very vulnerable. The field team emptied all their water for the day into a cooler box where we usually store elephant faecal samples collected as part of our field routine, and presented this to the calf. Unafraid and overcome by thirst she slurped it all up. The Warden inspected the situation and decided that we could organise to capture her as she wouldn’t survive for long with the pride of lions in the area. Possibly she was the calf that was seen desperately trying to suckle on her dying mother a few weeks earlier. An attempt was made to rescue the mother but she died a few days later (Watch here).
Sister and brother team, Drs. Liezel (Provet) and Christiaan Steinmann (State vet) were soon on the scene and although the dart did not detonate entirely we managed to herd the calf into a web of caring hands where Liezel could easily administer a sedative intravenously. We loaded her into our trusted field vehicle called The Beast and rushed to Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) as Liezel didn’t want to top up the drug unnecessarily while we also didn’t wish for a sleeping elephant to wake up in our now cramped car!
Again a web of caring human hands received the precious cargo as she was taken to a bed of straw with heating lamps to keep her warm overnight for observation close to the semi-domesticated elephant herd at HESC. The herd of 14 elephants knew something was amiss and with soft rumbles that penetrated the moist night air they managed to comfort each other despite the human constructs that kept them apart. In the morning, Adine Roode, manager of Camp Jabulani, decided that the calf should be introduced to the other elephants which seemed to be her most pressing need. The acceptance was immediate and heart warming! Tokwe, the matriarch of the herd allowed the little calf to comfort feed. Temporal glands streaming, trumpets and rumbles filled the air as the elephants excitedly greeted the calf while human tears silently plopped to the ground. Tokwe’s daughter, Limpopo, couldn’t stop touching the little one and she was soon corralled amongst the pillared legs of all the females.
They set out into the bush with the grooms and all in tow. Like a swarm of bees caking around a queen, they never let the calf out of their sight. The bulls had to now move more to the periphery as the protective maternal instincts of the females kicked in. I watched with tear-filled eyes as the elephants moved onto the plains to feed for the day. The clouds in the sky dotted the expanse of blue space above them while the green flushing shrubs mirrored a landscape dotted with browsing food for the elephants. They slowed their pace to ensure that the calf could stay nettled amongst them. My heart drifted after their leafy foot prints in the sand while my thoughts wandered towards the latest statistics according to which we have already lost 30% of the savannah elephant population due to poaching in seven years. It may be time for us to change our conservation focus so that we never have to apologize for having compassion for an individual. I take courage from little Timisa, who means courageous in in Xitsonga (the local dialect). If we allow it then one elephant can make a difference and open a new world of thinking to us.
We would like to thank Mark Shaw for caring. Each and every party played their role from the Elephants Alive team members, the veterinarians, the provincial administrators for issuing the permits, to the wonderful staff at HESC. Adine Roode is thanked for never turning any animal in need away. The 14 elephants are thanked for leading the way. Last but not least Elephants Alive would like to thank Christopher Parker from the OAK Foundation for committing to start an elephant orphanage at HESC in view of the escalating elephant poaching which has moved southwards in recent years. Upon our request, he has also agreed to pay for the development of an elephant milk formula which is much needed for neonatal elephants. The aim will be to rewild the elephants, staying clear of breeding, petting or trading in keeping with our philosophy.