After 25 years as a wildlife photographer, and having always wished to see and photograph a wild elephant birth, my dream finally came true whilst on a safari in Botswana with Stoney & Jan Edwards and their son Tom last December. The poignant moment was made so much more exciting by the fact that we had great light for photography, the elephant chose to drop her baby right in front of us in open country, and the herd interactions and excitement were so moving.
It started after we’d had a great morning at Mombo Camp, watching lions, buffalo, leopard and then rhino – four of the Big Five – and then we found a herd of elephants feeding on the floodplains. Big Five in one game drive – amazing. After watching the herd for a while we were about to move off when I noticed one cow acting a bit strangely. I asked our driver to stop and wait a while and quickly discerned she was about to go into labour.
The cow first lay down then stood up again, moving quite awkwardly. I noticed a bulge on her flanks, quite high up, but then noticed her rear was swollen. I was almost too scared to say anything, but murmured to my guests – I think she’s going to have a baby! At this stage most of the herd was feeding unconcernedly nearby, though one or two younger cow had moved closer. They may have been her daughters. The cow then rumbled a bit, and let out a brief trumpet. The next thing she had turned her back towards us and I could see the beginnings of the amniotic sac protruding from her birth canal. How co-operative and convenient of her to make sure we could see everything!
The actual delivery was very fast – a few seconds and the calf was lying kicking to free itself from the sac on the ground. The mother initially moved away, rumbling excitedly…and the rest of the herd responded immediately, rumbling, trumpeting and rushing to the scene.
That was when proceedings really became fascinating. I knew of course that elephants are sentient beings and have a great understanding of life and death, much like we humans do. But the way the herd gathered around and formed a protective screen, then started “digging” at the ground with their forefeet to create what I termed a “birthing pit” or perhaps a soft cradle-like sandpit where the calf would find it easier to stand for the first time, and have a soft
landing every time it stumbled and fell. Whatever, there was a seemingly conscious decision by all of them to create this soft sand-pit.
All the older cows gathered close to the mother and newborn, assisting with their trunks in removing the sac around the calf. One cow turned towards us and raised her trunk inquiringly, but seemed to accept that we meant no harm, presented no threat, and were as fascinated as they were! We’d made a decision right from the start that we should keep the vehicle stationary and keep our voices low so as not to cause any concern, and it seemed to work. The elephants accepted us totally.
Then the truly fascinating part began. Two calves, the one perhaps not much more than a year, the other a few years old, crawled and wormed their way under the surrounding adults to get close to the newly born member of their herd. It was incredible seeing how these youngsters tried to help the newborn get to its feet, nudging and shoving and even crwling under it in the by-now well-churned soil in an attempt to lift it to its feet! Absolutely wonderful. The youngest of the two calves stayed at the newborn’s side throughout from that stage, and from what we could see, played an important part in helping it stand for the first time.
At one stage a huge old tuskless cow moved into the scene – she may have been the herd matriarch – and lay down alongside the newborn calf. This too was fascinating behaviour. Like granny wanting the first touch! The rest of the herd actually showed deference to this old girl, so my assumption about being the matriarch could be correct. She lay there gazing at the newly born member of her family fondly, and touched it with her trunk. After a while she stood and moved out of the way and the efforts to help the baby to its feet continued. There were several amusing moments when the calf went head over heels, but with the assistance of the youngster at its side and some well controlled adult feet and heels it eventually managed to get to its feet, find its mother’s breasts and have its first drink of warm elephant milk!
The calf was so tiny it had to stand on tip-toes to get anywhere near reaching Mom’s breasts. Meanwhile the older calf that had aided all the while lay exhausted alongside from its efforts, but seemingly a proud cousin or half-brother to the new-born.
Eventually almost exactly an hour after the birth began with the appearance of the sac between the cow’s hind legs, the small calf was steady enough on its feet to start making its way in the new world around it. Almost immediately it turned and started walking towards our vehicle, trunk outstretched as if to say “Hi”. Not wanting to upset the mother or the other adults, and not wanting the calf to bond with us, we started the motor and gently backed away.
This was certainly a day to remember, and probably the highlight of my career as a wildlife photographer, safari guide & operator.