Growing Up Elephant ~ Khanyisa's Milestones

March 6, 2020

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of '97... wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it." - Mary Schmich

This applies tenfold to albino elephants. Of course, elephant sunscreen is equal parts clay and water and is applied by rolling in it. It can be a bit messy. Sunglasses would be a good idea, but it might possibly be too difficult to find just the right pair, so we'll make do with a sun umbrella. Or a onesie? Or maybe a zebra pattern blanket strapped to the broad elephantine back.

Khanyisa, meaning 'Sunshine' or 'Light' in the local Shona language, is destined to be more than just any pink elephant. She is already an ambassador for orphaned elephants across the world as she gets ready to join the Jabulani herd, a family of elephants with an equally troubled past. She may become a mother or aunt to the next generation of elephants and, in turn, welcome other orphaned elephants into her care, helping to strengthen the herd's matriarchal social network. In the meantime, she is raising awareness of the problems that surround animal and human coexistence.

Elephant calves require large amounts of... everything! 

After 22 months, the longest gestation period of all mammals, they're born big, roughly 90 kg of clumsy, stumbling perfection. Elephants share many of humanity's better qualities. They are social and gregarious animals that have a similar lifespan to humans, with mothers and daughters bonding for life. Raising young calves requires an enormous investment in time and energy.

Khanyisa requires the same round-the-clock mollycoddling that her mother and aunts would have provided in the wild, which is where our dedicated carers come in, along with our plan to release her into the Jabulani herd, where the elephants will take over the role of caretaking.

Khanyisa and Jabulani are slowly getting to know each other...

Elephant calves need to learn...

They differ from other mammals in that, like humans, they are born without the instinctive abilities displayed by most warm-blooded animals. The young elephants spend their first three to five years totally dependent on their mothers for physical and emotional support and can continue to suckle for up to 10 years. The young learn by watching and imitating the other members of the herd. Their trunks are a mystery to them that takes almost a year to master. In the meantime, they swing them about and frequently trip over them. 

As Khanyisa continues to grow tall and strong, she needs to learn how to avoid the spotlight (and sunlight), to stay in the shadows and play in the mud. She needs to be sheltered from the scorching African sun, as a young albino elephant with sensitive skin and eyes. For now, our carers follow her around with a handy umbrella, as she explores her sunny playground, but in the future the Jabulani herd's giants will take on this role, providing shade for her in the shadows of their great bodies. Her explorations and front yard tyre tussling and "tag, you're it" games with Adine help her to learn more about her body, how to use it, never mind giving her essential exercise and playful stimulation.

Milk moments in the nursery, with Adine & Khanyisa

Then there's a matter of dung...

Colostrum is a breast fluid produced by mammals before breast milk is released. It contains high levels of antibodies, immune cells and growth hormones and is extremely nutritious and essential in allowing a newborn elephant to get off to a good start. Khanyisa likely received her colostrum before being caught in the snare and derailed from the future her mother envisioned for her. Many other elephants that are separated from their mothers aren't so lucky.

Rest is an important part of rehabilitation. Sweet dreams, girl.

One of the major challenges we face is creating the correct and ideal milk formula to ensure that the fast-growing calves receive the right nutrition for their individual needs. But there's another way we can help support little Khanyisa's health...

Elephant calves naturally eat the faeces of their mothers or other members of the herd in order to obtain the bacteria required to properly digest vegetation found in their ecosystems. They are born with sterile intestines that do not contain these bacteria and would be unable to obtain any nutritional value from their diet without ingesting bacteria from an external source. As such, we feed Khanyisa fresh dung to ensure that she has a healthy and microbe-rich gut.

Colostrum is even being marketed to professional athletes and capsules containing fecal matter are being sold to solve gut issues in humans. Elephants, as always, know best...

The milestones

Watching little Khanyisa growing up before our eyes is a true pleasure, with several milestones along the way for us to celebrate. There was the discovery of her milk tusks. Baby elephants are born with milk tusks which fall out and are replaced by permanent tusks between six and 12 months of age. As Khanyisa's baby tusks grow, we can really feel them beneath the surface in her mouth.

Then her stitches came out. Her weight continues to rise, going from 124 kgs, when she was rescued on 7 January 2020, to 174 kgs, on 6 March. And the little girl is finding her voice!

Research is ongoing, but roughly 70 kinds of vocal sounds and 160 different visual and tactile signals, expressions, and gestures have been identified in elephants. Researchers have been trying to separate the squeals, cries, screams, roars, snorts, rumbles, and groans to decipher elephant talk, but we have been hearing all variations of these from Khanyisa in the last few weeks, including with Adine when she says goodbye.

As Khanyisa matures, her squeals of delight and uncertainty will be replaced by deep rumbles. She will discover her ability to speak to friends that are kilometres away using sub-sonic sound. She will use her trunk to soothe other calves and maybe to inhale the faraway smells of those that once were her human family.

What will happen next on her journey to her own herd?

Bye bye, stitches!
Khanyisa weighs in at 174 kgs on 6 March 2020

Thank you so much for all of your support and engagement!

We are so grateful to the kind hearts that donate toward the vital work of HERD, South Africa’s first dedicated elephant orphanage, helping us to save, rehabilitate and rewild orphaned elephants.

If you would like or are able to, please consider donating to HERD (every cent counts!) or fostering Khanyisa, as our orphanage relies entirely on funding.

Please click here for more info >

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