Raising a baby elephant

A glimpse into a day beside a baby elephant orphan at HERD (Hoedspruit Elephant Rehabilitation & Development, South Africa’s first dedicated elephant orphanage), as numerous hands and trunks take on the role of raising a calf and giving it a second chance at life in a herd.

Mornings come early in the wilderness. The sky is still dark as we wake to prepare for the day ahead. Already our night shift carers have been working through the night. Working… What does work look like in the wee hours under the starry skies at our little elephant orphanage in the wild, you wonder? It is one of the dedicated men in our care team sitting outside or on a stretcher next to the orphan, little albino calf, Khanyisa for instance, while she and her companion sheeps, Lammie and Nungu alternate between sleeping, eating, playing, sleeping, eating, playing, through the night.

The carer keeps a close eye and ear on them, ready to attend to the call of a rumble or baaaa (from Lammie). They monitor everything: writing down the elephant’s every urine or dung passing, feeding the calf milk at different intervals, and keeping it safe from outsiders, here in our Big 5 reserve.

Elephants are restless sleepers, not at all like humans who sleep straight through. Khanyisa, who is just two years old, will wake for her bottle several times through the night, which our carers prepare, feed and clean constantly. A victim of snaring, now being integrated into the Jabulani elephant herd after being successfully rehabilitated, Khanyisa also munches on branches, sweet potato and bana grass in the nursery during the night, right beside her woolly friends.

On hot nights, the door is open, and she can roam about or sleep outside in her small private garden. On cold nights, it is vital for fragile baby elephants to keep their body temperatures up and so inside they stay, with a fleece or wool blanket wrapped around them, providing the warmth a mother elephant would provide in the wild.

Constantly, through the care and raising of baby elephants, our role is to be a mother to the baby, to step in and help replace what was taken away.

Khanyisa (meaning “Light” or “Sunshine” in Shona) was found abandoned by her herd in the wild. Her mother and herd were nowhere to be seen. It’s unknown whether she was abandoned before or after being caught in the snare, which she dislodged and was found trapped in – the wire caught around her neck and causing severe lacerations.

Our carers, for those very important first months, and still now, as Khanyisa walks in the wild with her new herd, became her family, providing milk, security, teaching, warmth, stimulation. Her needs, as all baby elephants, were and continue to be diverse, nuanced, and numerous. Raising a baby elephant is completely different to raising another animal, as elephants are so incredibly complex and sensitive.

Khanyisa’s milk formula needs continual tweaking as she grows – just as her mother’s milk would have naturally changed, in that truly amazing way of nature intuitively knowing what is needed. As she has grown, and started eating vegetation more and more, our carers provide Khanyisa with a range of branches, grasses, leaves, vegetables and fruits, solid food that helps to supplement her milk intake.

After waking and getting her morning milk bottle, she may have a weigh-in on our livestock scale, or head straight to grazing outside in the grass with Lammie and Nungu, before following one of our carers to the herd. The carer carries a backpack, which holds milk bottles for the day in the bush and a hot water bottle to keep it warm.

This is always such a precious scene, like a child heading off to school, as Khanyisa leaves her home to run to the elephants waiting for her. Once united, trunks embracing one another, smell detection on overdrive, the herd head off, carers beside them to protect them through the day.

It took a slow and vital process of integration to get to this stage where Khanyisa happily speeds off among the big gentle giant feet, with her favourite playmate, little elephant Timisa, another orphan accepted into the herd, and adoptive mother, Lundi. She has been fully accepted now and our role is simply to get her bigger and stronger, with frequent milk feedings, so that she can spend full nights with the herd who have taken her in as one of their own.

Together the elephants spend the day foraging from the lush greenery, fruits, branches, and bark across the bush, swimming in the waterhole, sparring and playing, mud wallowing, sand bathing, walking, bonding… with our carers making sure all is well along the way, from around 6 am to 6 pm. During the day, our team bring in a new batch of milk bottles for the baby and take the empty bottles back to the orphanage for cleaning and refilling.

Image by Simon Needham

The calf’s time in the bush with the elephants is invaluable. It’s where she learns all the vital tricks and talents of her species. It’s not only the adoptive mother who helps, but rather several allomothers too – elephant “aunts” who fill in for the mother from time to time, helping, instinctively, to care for the calf who has become the apple of the herd’s eye, the most important centre of attention.

It has been beautiful to watch Khanyisa mimicking her elders – when they dig for bulbs, she will watch and then try it herself, until finding her own bulb. There have been so many moments of learning and copying over the months between Khanyisa and her herd – as she’s soaked in every new experience: elephants throwing sand over their bodies and rolling about in the mud, vital activities that help protect the skin from insects and the sun’s harsh rays. She’s learnt what to eat, how to eat, gaining more and more strength in her growing trunk to be able to pull up grass and tug down branches.

The herd have surrounded her every little step of the way. This is especially evident as she has started swimming. Elephants have an incredible way of looking after one another and when the youngest and most vulnerable is lolling about in the thick mud where threats like crocodiles or lions, or simply getting stuck, are posed, the herd protect the baby with their legs, helping it to get up when necessary. They keep an eye (or ear and trunk) on the bush all around them at all times.

For our carers, the elephants’ role in raising a baby elephant is never done, but also, like us, in the human herd, it is fortunately a job that is shared among many hands – or trunks. Raising an elephant, as with a child, takes a village. A herd.

This was the reason HERD Founder, Adine Roode started the elephant orphanage and built it right alongside the Jabulani herd stables, where this unique blended herd of rescued elephants stays overnight when not out foraging. The proximity provides the support from the older elephants for the new orphans needing a new family. Acceptance and belonging, support and love, these are values that are vitally important in elephant social structures and go a long way in helping the calves who have experienced great trauma of snares, poaching, and abandonment to heal and have a second chance at life as nature intended.

When Khanyisa and the herd arrive back at sunset, Khanyisa heads over to the orphanage again, often with her adoptive mother, Lundi accompanying her to the gate, where Lammie and one of our carers welcome her, with a bottle in hand (in the carer’s hand, Lammie is not quite that flexible yet).

Lammie and Nungu provide such lovely company for the calf in these nursery moments, with the three grazing together, chasing one another, playing, headbutting, simply being in one another’s presence. Lammie and Nungu give each other company during the day while Khanyisa is out.

After twelve hours out in the African wilderness, Khanyisa is often ready for bed when she arrives back to the orphanage and she may head straight to her nursery for a wind-down. Sometimes though, there’s still plenty of pep in her step to chase the wind through the long grass in the orphanage garden, or to frolic with her tyre tube. Keeping the calf stimulated is vital, but rest is just as important. When it is time for slumber, Khanyisa plops down onto a bed of hay to get some rest with our carer arriving for night duty by her side.

There is so much that goes on behind-the-scenes at an elephant orphanage – nursery cleaning, gardening, branch-collecting, milk-making, dishwashing, admin… the household chores that allow a home to run smoothly. Caring for the little elephant orphan through the fragile years until it is ready to leave the home, that is our role, our purpose, and our great joy.

There are incredible challenges every step of the way, the journey is never smooth, what with everything that the orphan has gone through, but our team come together to do everything we can as humans to undo the wrongs of the past and give the baby the best new chance at a future among the welcoming and loving trunks and tails and tusks of fellow gentle giants.

In Khanyisa’s case, she has found everything we could have hoped for – a family to call her own.


To donate to HERD:

https://herd.org.za/product/donate/

https://herd.org.za/foster-an-elephant/