A Mother's Love

Published on the 25th of February, 2021

My mother once said, “To be a baby elephant must be wonderful. Surrounded by a loving family 24 hours a day... I think it must be how it ought to be, in a perfect world.”

I was inspired to write this Field Notes based on an incident that unfolded just a few weeks ago. We are best known for raising Kenya’s orphaned elephants, ensuring that they too grow up surrounded by love. However, our primary goal is to keep elephant families together whenever possible, preserving the “perfect world” of which Daphne spoke. This month, we celebrate a mother’s love and delve into a few of these remarkable reunion stories.

- Angela Sheldrick

A Mother’s Love

Raising a baby elephant is truly a labour of love, one that begins long before they even take their first steps on earth. I was always struck by the fact that an elephant’s gestation period is 22 months, the longest of any mammal. For the better part of two years, mothers nurture their little miracle from within, all while braving droughts, traversing great distances, and grappling with the daily challenges that mark any wild animal’s existence. Within minutes of being born, a baby elephant is helped to their feet by their mother and nannies. This is but the first supportive gesture among thousands that will unfold over the coming months, years, and even decades. For elephants, familial love lasts a lifetime.

That is what makes it all the more heartbreaking when elephant families are torn apart, through human malice or natural misfortune. While we provide a home for the orphans left behind, our first priority is always to keep these precious families together. To see the bond that exists between a mother elephant and her baby is to see love in its purest form, and that love must be honored and protected.

This singular mission came into sharp focus earlier this month. It was nearing midnight, but Robert and I decided to check the night vision cameras around Ithumba one last time before going to bed. All manner of wildlife frequent the water trough outside the stockades, so it is always interesting to watch the nocturnal visits unfold.

A small herd of elephants was clustered around the trough, which in and of itself was not an unusual sight. However, something was clearly amiss. Far from the relaxed wildlife we usually see, they were visibly distressed, pacing and shaking their heads. Focusing our eyes against the darkness, we saw the source of their worry: The tiniest member of their herd, a newborn calf, was stuck inside. While all our troughs are designed to prevent this very situation from happening, she had defied engineering, and despite their best efforts, her herd was unable to extricate her.

There is much more to this story, which I will share in due course. But first, a brief interlude:

Day in, day out, stories like this unfold across Kenya. While there have been dozens of rescue-and-reunion missions over the years, each one sticks with me most poignantly. There was the Christmas Eve operation to save an infant elephant who had a snare slicing through his throat and ear. His mother was so protective that she charged at the Amboseli Vet Unit's Land Cruiser, leaving a sizable dent in its door. After this dramatic standoff, the team was able to access the baby and remove the ghastly wire. Watching this young bull walk off to rejoin his family was the best possible Christmas gift.

In a Christmas Eve de-snaring operation, the calf's mother faced off the vet's Land Cruiser in an attempt to protect her baby

Earlier last year, rangers observed a yearling calf who was unable to keep pace with her herd due to a grievous leg injury. Hoping to keep the family together, our Mount Kenya Mobile Vet Unit immediately mobilised a treatment. Fortunately, they got to her in time. While it transpired that the calf had been shot, the wound was not mortal and she rejoined her herd with a positive prognosis for recovery.

When this calf was shot in the leg, mum and baby had to be darted for treatment to commence

Just a few months ago, a calf became hopelessly stuck in mud outside Arruba Lodge. When our Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit arrived on the scene, he was barely visible. While the calf’s herd was gently shepherded away, several members of the team rolled up their pants and waded into the mud. After pulling the baby out of the sticky mire and cleaning his mud-covered body, they sent him off to his family, who was anxiously waiting nearby.

An elephant mum was desperately yet unsuccessfully trying to free her calf from the mud, so we waded in to help

Each of these stories ended in the best possible scenario: The baby was reunited with their mother. In fact, in most cases, the mother refuses to leave her baby’s side, necessitating the veterinarian to dart both in order for the necessary treatment to unfold. Seeing this love and commitment makes one realise just how dire the circumstances must have been for the orphans we do rescue. A mother will only abandon her calf when there is no other alternative. If there is even a glimmer of hope for a baby to be returned to their family, we move mountains to make it happen. We have facilitated countless happy reunions over the years.

And this brings me back to the story that unfolded at Ithumba just a few weeks ago:

The moment we saw the plight of this stuck calf, we phoned our Ithumba team. Given the late hour, many were already in a deep slumber, but they immediately jumped out of bed and sprung into action. In order for them to safely extract the calf, they first had to move her protective family away from the scene. Ever so slowly, they drove the water bowser up to the trough. While the rest of the herd reluctantly retreated, the calf’s mother stood up to the truck, determined to protect her baby at all costs. Standing in Nairobi, watching everything unfold through the camera, my heart ached for this courageous mother.

Eventually, she too had no choice but to withdraw. Knowing that they had a very small window of opportunity before the herd circled back, the team moved in. Any nighttime foray into Tsavo takes great courage, but especially when a worried herd of elephants could charge at any moment. However, our Keepers didn’t think twice, running through the darkness to help the calf. Given her tiny size, lifting her out was just a two-person job.

The moment her feet were on solid ground, the calf was off like a shot. While she scurried in the direction of her herd, our team remained vigilant, waiting until they had visual confirmation that she had found them. The reunion was moving indeed. The calf’s mother and her nannies embraced her with palpable relief, inspecting every inch of her body to make sure she was unharmed. When they were satisfied that she was fine, they enveloped her in a protective cocoon of trunks and bodies and began to move off.

Before disappearing into the night, the calf’s mother turned back to us, almost as if acknowledging all that had unfolded. After all, we are not really so different. Humans and elephants are both species that feel keenly and love deeply. We are guided by family, not only in our infancy, but throughout our lives. As I watched this mother and her baby walk off into the inky darkness, I knew this was just the beginning of their journey together. What a privilege it is for us to preserve these journeys, and keep these remarkable families together.

Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please subscribe here.

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