For the love of water and an elephant named Khanyisa

March 22, 2020

Water-loving Khanyisa

From the beginning, when Khanyisa first arrived at HERD, in January this year, our priority has been to be a mother to her – to be the herd she so desperately has needed. No elephant has the means to rip open a human-made steel snare, but we can certainly believe that if they could, Khanyisa’s birth herd would have pried her from its clutches in an elephant heartbeat. Because that’s what family means in the elephant queendom. The film, Lilo & Stitch says it well: “Ohana means family and family means no one gets left behind.”

When she arrived at HERD, the little albino calf had been locked between the jaws of the snare for what we think was four or five days. She had been alone and no doubt terrified. She was severely injured and dehydrated.

With Adine’s years of experience in elephant conservation and treasured aid from our elephant advisors, we knew that being an elephant parent didn’t mean giving the new baby orphan whatever she wanted. It meant a reliance on intuition, experience and reading her needs, but also determining what was good for her, moment to moment.

This is where water comes in…

Elephants are natural water lovers. They tumble and splash and swim and drink in water’s glory whenever they can. Weather depending, some days they like a little more than normal. Nature may not have prepared them to cope with a snare, but she has equipped elephants with a way to find water where we humans wouldn’t even know it existed. They can dig for water with their trunks, feet and tusks to reach underground sources. And they’ll do so until they’ve unearthed enough for the whole herd. Their trunks are designed perfectly to hold around 10-12 litres of water, depending on the size of the elephant, which they then spray into their mouths to drink.

Elephants don’t just drink it, they use water for evaporative cooling. They play in it, wallow in it, bond in it, and swim across it in cases of rivers to get to greener pastures. Science has even revealed that elephants used to live partially in water – back in the age of an ancient elephant ancestor called Moeritherium, which spent most of its time in rivers and swamps.

All this is to say, elephants naturally find great joy and comfort in water. Khanyisa is no different. In fact, in her first few days, she drank so much of it, she wouldn’t drink enough of her milk formula, which was a great concern to us as we had to ensure that she received enough sustenance and nutrition. But baby girl was thirsty for water!

This is where harsh parenting comes in…

While we had to restrict her water intake, it did nothing to quell her desire for it. We’ll never forget one day after she had just arrived, she ran out of the nursery and headed straight for a puddle on the ground up against the fence surrounding her garden at HERD. She plopped her tiny body right down in it and refused to move. If you’ve seen a Labrador on the beach, you’ll understand that removing an animal that wants to swim, from the waves or shallows or depths of an ocean, lake or puddle, is both physically and emotionally challenging.

The puddle that Khanyisa lay down in wasn’t the cleanest, being muddy and having stood around for longer than we’d liked. But she would not give up her puddle for at least half an hour. Eventually we managed to move her over to her trough in the nursery garden. We filled it with water and into it she climbed! Fresh, cool, pure, delicious water!

Ever since then, we’ve noticed that, possibly more than any other elephant orphan we have rehabilitated before, Khanyisa is one serious water lover. She is constantly flicking and flopping her trunk and feet around in her shallow baby pool.

From what we can deduce, it seems as though the water really comforts her. It calms her, gives her peace, joy, like the embrace of a mother, whose tall legs huddle around the calf’s body, providing shade and security and company.

Khanyisa is the same with tall lush grass. We cannot keep her out of it. She will sometimes ignore her milk bottle and head out running through the thick vegetation. And sometimes, most of the time these days, we give in to her. As long as she drinks her milk and goes to bed at a reasonable hour, we give in to those puppy dog blue eyes and her albino pink shine.

And as we watch her now, we imagine her one day soon happily splashing and frolicking beside her future herd - playing with fallen tree branches in the dam with Fishan, as though they were pool noodles, or roly-poly-ing with the other orphans, Timisa and Kumbura in the shallows of bigger, newer puddles in her bigger, newer garden, in the wilderness of Jabulani.

We give in, because elephants, after all, always seem to know best.

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