Let me tell you about baby elephants. The obvious is that they are adorable, no question. They are spirited and mischievous and the minute the new baby at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand looked into my eyes and touched my face with his trunk I was a goner.
But what I really want to tell you about is what that baby means to the family of elephants they are born into – they mean everything! I arrived at the Park shortly after Navaan was born in the middle of the night. I heard the stories of how no one slept through it. The herd jostled for position at the paddock where the mother was going through labor. They were there for support but also to strengthen their chances for the jobs of nanny and aunties. When the prince Navaan arrived there was much vocal joy from all the elephants and all the humans!
From the minute they touch the ground they are adored … really even before that, since the ladies of the family believe it is never too early to start applying for positions of importance.
If he got himself into trouble ( cause that’s how they roll!) and started wailing the mom, nanny and aunties all come running to see what is wrong and things can get a little hairy let me tell you when there is 5 grown elephants jostling to get to the baby to console him! It is comical and pulls at your heart strings at the same time. Love is in the air!
I assume it is much the same with the wild elephants of Africa, that the birth of a new elephant is cause for much joy and the whole family actively cares for her. After all they are in their mom’s womb for 22 months – almost 2 years! They will only be able to have about 6 in their lifetime. The babies nurse for 3-4 years though they can be weaned by 2 years and normally by the time the baby is 9 months 40% of her diet is vegetation but the mother’s milk continues to give her much needed nutrients.
Needless to say, the babies are important to the family, much like humans. And much like humans, if you saw a 2 year old human child walking on the streets of your city, you would be alarmed, right? Same with a 2 year old elephant.
So when we saw a baby elephant all by herself at the water hole in Chobe Game Park (Botswana) I was chilled to the bone. Questions flooded my brain but the main one that was screaming in my head was; “WHERE IS HER MOTHER?!” I was sitting in the front by the driver, Shakha, and I kept asking him that question. He had no answers and was concerned too. It was especially dangerous for her to be there since the waterhole was near a larger one where a grown male elephant had died and where a male and female lion had been feasting all day on his carcass.
I kept hoping that the two of them were so sated and lazy they would not notice this little girl wandering around. We had arrived earlier in the morning at the larger waterhole to watch the drama unfold as the lions were forced to protect “their” meal from all the scavengers, both on the ground and from the air. While I understood that this is nature and death happens to all of us I didn’t find any enjoyment out of watching the animals feeding so I just averted my eyes. Someone behind me had noticed and said something like “Well think of it this way, something will live tonight because the pride will be full and won’t need to hunt.” Ironic that.
Then the baby decided to take off down the road. The lions hadn’t been able to see her before because she was in the depression and the hole was surrounded by vegetation. But now she was out in the open.
Suddenly the male lion gets up and starts to trot after something. At first we thought it was a jackal that had gotten too close… I think the jackal thought that too cause he took off like a shot.
My heart sank when I realized that he had spotted the baby elephant. I have never seen anything as terrifying as that lion. Always on safari the lions I have seen were lazy and lolling under a tree or a bush, caring only for the bit of shade they can hog. I have never seen a hunting lion. The laser focus was brutal. Nothing was going to distract him from his prey.
All the safari trucks in the area like magic converged on this area causing billows of red dust. Panic rose in me like a tsunami, threatening to overwhelm me. I wanted with all my heart to save that baby and I couldn’t. I could have thrown myself on top of that lion and he would have shrugged me off like a bird. When I realized I couldn’t save her all I wanted in the whole world was to be somewhere else. I couldn’t see for the tears running down my face, I couldn’t hear for the roaring in my head.
Thankfully they were in thick bush so we didn’t see what happened. But we couldn’t get away fast enough that we didn’t hear it. The baby’s screams of sheer terror and pain cut through the roaring in my head like a laser. Those moments felt like hours, it felt like she was my baby and I was flooded with such pain – there are no words. As I write this I am reliving it. I knew this would happen and is why it has taken me so long to write about it. But I had to write it because it has been haunting me and will haunt me for a long time.
Shakha got us out of there as quick as he could. I didn’t realize it at the time but everyone, including our guides, were shaken and traumatized to one degree or another.
I know it is nature but I also know the lion didn’t kill the baby because he was hungry. He killed her because he could. Too much like humans for my taste.
Mother Africa never fails to challenge me but hands down this was the most painful challenge yet.
I am now in Kenya, not far from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. I came here just to visit their elephant/rhino orphanage and I am proud to announce that I am a newly minted proud foster mom to Tamiyoi! She was rescued Oct 16/15 and they believe she was about 2 months old. You can watch the video of her rescue.
So this will help heal the trauma of losing that unknown baby in Chobe Game Park by knowing I am helping another orphan to survive and thrive and some day will be released to the wild. By all accounts my baby has all the makings of an excellent matriarch so she will make sure that the herd including the babies are safe and protected. Long live Tamiyoi and her descendants!