by Adine Roode

By now Phabeni has met and spent time with older elephants, Jabulani, Lundi, Somopane and Sebakwe. Our introduction programme is going well and we can see how Phabeni flourishes during the time he spends with the elephants. So much so, that it feels like we can and perhaps should move faster, as it is going extremely well. But, I need to remind myself, that Rome wasn’t built in a day and if things go wrong, you can’t undo it, so best be patient.

For today, Tigere and I decided to introduce two more elephants. Mother and daughter. Setombe and Klaserie.

Over the years, Setombe has been in the hierarchy of the bulls, and is the dominant female. She is the oldest elephant, though not the matriarch. She has always adored her daughter, Klaserie and is very close to her. She is head of discipline in the herd, I often say. And as we know, Tokwe will accept any little one, so I thought it would be good to first introduce Setombe to Phabeni, so that in a way, we can move forward to the next phase. Setombe’s introduction is a matter of going through procedures and giving everyone a chance until Tokwe and her group of females step in. Pisa and Timisa will be the ones that might not be too interested and then there is Khanyisa, whom we are not sure about. How might she react to the new youngest family member, replacing her in this position?

Setombe and Klaserie are always curious, however also careful and alert to everything, especially anything new to them. We let Tokwe, Bubi and the younger females feed close by in the field outside the homestead, with Fishan, Mambo and Zindoga, while Setombe and Klaserie joined the others in the homestead. Lundi doesn’t need to be invited anymore and she rushes over to Phabeni in the mornings. It’s routine for her now. On this new morning, she waited for Phabeni while Stavros and Phabeni walked over from the orphanage and entered the homestead. Phabeni walked straight to Lundi and while she acknowledged him, she moved her leg forward so he could suckle from her. The little calf lifted his mouth and trunk upwards, then backwards, bending his hind legs and lowering his rear to the ground, suckling. Phabeni then walked underneath Lundi, and started suckling on her other side, while Lundi fed on the bana grass.

As Setombe entered the homestead and came closer, Lundi moved away and Setombe grabbed bana grass blades. Phabeni stayed with Lundi, still trying to suckle, while Jabulani swung his trunk towards Setombe, then to Klaserie, claiming his bana grass territory, or perhaps to also say, I am here with Lundi. 

Sebakwe and Somopane moved in slowly and with that distinct bull aura, with intensity and focus, not in any rush to join the group or new baby. Jabulani seemed disturbed by everyone joining him, as it reduced his share of the bana grass. As Sebakwe entered, Jabulani moved in between Klaserie and Setombe to see what he could feed on.

Phabeni walked up to Setombe and looked for a nipple, but the female was not comfortable yet and moved away, feeling a bit uncertain. Phabeni moved in to greet me, and check in, before turning around and moving back towards Setombe, offering them both a moment to smell one another. Then he moved to Klaserie, who was also not ready for him to suckle. As she turned slightly, he turned around and decided to take another chance with Setombe, who was ready for him and moved her right leg forward, opening her ‘milk gland’ to him. She moved away, not because of Phabeni, but because Somopane moved in between Setombe and Klaserie. 

Phabeni stands beneath big bull, Somopane

Setombe and Klaserie showed their usual behaviour towards newbies in their space. Smelling, swinging their trunks towards Phabeni, while the calf followed Lundi. Klaserie and Setombe were clearly secreting, and showed typical female behaviour, moving backwards towards Phabeni, Lundi, the bulls and the bana grass. Even Jabulani was secreting, but perhaps because of the excitement among the females. While surrounded by the females, Phabeni walked over to Somopane, slipped underneath him and met up with Lundi to suckle. Some special moments between Phabeni and Lundi were shared and I am wondered if he was perhaps a bit irritated by the presence of the other elephants, as his focus was to be with Lundi. 

It was not even half an hour later that things calmed down among all the elephants – the old and new mixed together. Phabeni was with Klaserie and although she tried to do the correct things, you could see that she was very uncomfortable and didn’t have a clue about how a baby should suckle from her. Setombe, the overprotective mother, came to support her. 

Phabeni wasn’t scared to approach any of the bulls and would smell them, while they slowly lifted a leg here and there, so as not to bump or hurt him. 

Phabeni successfully suckles from eldest female, Setombe

I think it was somewhere here, where Phabeni and Setombe found each other. Setombe was standing with her leg stretched forward to let the little bull suckle, her head lifted, mouth open as if breathing now through her mouth and not her trunk or holding her breath to not let the moment go by. She was swinging her trunk and flapping her ears. It wasn’t hot. She wasn’t doing this to cool down. She stayed put, even as Klaserie tried to reach baby Phabeni, from her other side. Time stood still for Setombe as she let Phabeni suckle. Lundi waited for Phabeni, with her rear towards Setombe.

Klaserie was getting impatient. She was unable to get closer. She put her front heel into the ground, stretching her front leg. She wanted her turn too. But this was her mother’s moment.

It was incredible to witness and an event that was so unexpected. Never did we think that Setombe would take to a new orphan in this way. Setombe followed Phabeni everywhere, even reversing to catch up to him. Setombe has never welcomed new babies like this, and has always been purely hyper-focused on her own daughter in terms of bonding and protecting. She might discipline other young elephants, but not take them in as her own. This was a window to a new world for us. One that we were so excited to continue looking through.

Just when you think you know someone, they turn around and surprise you.

Well done, Setombe!

Klaserie, Setombe’s daughter sneaks a sniff of Phabeni during the introduction

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