We know elephants have an impressive ability to work in groups when one of them is in trouble, but not all herds cope well with a crisis.
Recently, when a young calf crashed in the mud at a waterhole in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve, the rest of its herd launched an equally muddy rescue mission.
The young man’s ordeal was caught by the general manager of a nearby game motel, Nico Verster.
“We were watching a herd of breeding elephants drinking from the mouth of the water when the young calf overturned and landed in the water,” he said.
After seeing other elephant herds successfully carry out similar rescues, Verster was struck by this group’s apparent lack of cohesion and know-how.
“The mother seemed inexperienced and immediately tried to lift the baby, hold it to her body, and once turned it over with her hind legs. When she struggled, she became quite frantic, unable to hold a proper position.”
With the mother trying desperately to get her calf to safety, most of the other herd members stood by without coming to help.
“They were very inexperienced in this situation and didn’t really offer any help like spawning flocks usually do,” he notes.
Wildlife rehabilitator Karen Trendler, who has also witnessed similar scenarios, agrees that inexperience seems to be the cause here.
“There is surprisingly little communication. The mother does not issue distress calls but will warn other children for support. This could be due to lack of experience, age, or position in the swarm hierarchy,” she explains.
With the herd adopting a back-and-forth retreat strategy and hapless milling around, the calf’s fate looked increasingly precarious.
Trying to break free from the slippery mud, he became agitated and exhausted – and the ordeal clearly affected the other elephants.
“It is interesting to note the suffering of other calves – note that their tails and heads are facing up, and their ears are facing forward,” says Trendler.
For Verster, watching events unfold from the sidelines is extremely difficult, but his experience told him not to interfere. “The hardest thing was watching the calf struggle and possibly facing drowning.
My immediate instinct is to get involved, but it is essential not to interfere in these situations. This is an important lesson for both the herd and the young,” he said.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Through what seems like an absolute coincidence, the mother elephant and another herd member eventually “touched” the youngster in a protracted and disorderly interaction at the edge of the waterhole. After being confused for so long, the baby managed to get through with shaky feet, much to everyone’s relief.
Verster said: “It was incredibly moving to watch that moment – and the relief that the calf was safe was almost tangible.