Bull Elephants Display ‘Mothering Behavior’ Toward Orphaned Calves

By Gini Cowell

While we were watching a group of 13 bull elephants resting underneath an acacia tree just before midday last September, we noticed that in among their pillars of legs were much smaller, miniature legs and trunks. Two calves!

Only when the bulls began to shift and spread out a little could the calves be seen clearly. Both were males that appeared to be around the ages of five and three and a half—no longer completely milk dependent but still too young to be without their mothers.

The younger one had half his tail missing, but because there was no blood or any indication of a fresh wound, we suspected it was the result of an earlier hyena attack.

After scanning the area and seeing no female elephants, the immediate conclusion was that these two young elephants were orphans, a sad and very likely possibility with the ongoing poaching crisis across the continent.

Wanting to make sure this was indeed the situation, we observed them for hours and days. Initially, we’d hoped that they’d only been somehow separated from their families and would reunite at some point.

But each passing day was confirmation of a far more tragic circumstance. Both calves seemed to be, miraculously, maintaining pace with their massive guardians and feeding fairly normally.

I say “fairly normally” because when we first found them, the younger calf was not eating properly but rather play-feeding—nibbling on a bush and swinging a branch about with his trunk but not actually eating.

By the evening, however, the three-year-old calf had gained some momentum in his appetite, easing our concerns somewhat.

Once we felt certain that the calves had no mothers, our first reaction was to inform the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in hope of rescuing them, but unfortunately owing to the calves’ tender ages, this wasn’t going to be —> Read More