Raising an elephant

Anyone who has had the privilege to have had children will tell you that raising a baby, is far from easy. Human children need to be fed quality food for continual and optimal growth. A baby elephant is not much different and in many ways caretakers at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) note the same challenges.

Arriving at HESC, usually underfed, dehydrated and tired, the very first challenge is to find a suitable milk formula. If you have ever dared to stand in the baby isle at any supermarket, you would know that the confrontation of milk formulas is not something easily prepared for. Each formula can suit a specific baby’s needs and as the baby develops so does the formula. In the same way that babies have definite needs, elephant calves also have their needs – some need more protein, an increase in a specific mineral and others might show an allergic reaction towards a specific ingredient. As the calf grows, the formula needs to be adjusted.

Shawu the little elephant Shawu the little elephant

There is no specific milk formula or recipe for milk where one can say “this will work”. To develop a few proper milk formulas to suit different baby elephants’ needs, one would need samples of different elephant cows’ milk, also taking the calf’s age into consideration. Until this obstacle can be overcome, it is trial and error until the elephant calf is weaned.

Have you ever heard the expression “you can bring the horse to the water”? The second challenge, is getting the calf to drink. An elephant calf would stand between the mother’s legs, under her belly, with its trunk up against her body for comfort. To try and resemble the comfort, HESC made a plan to use a blanket that is hung from a tree so that the calf can put its trunk up or against it. HESC has found that each calf would have a preference to the type of blanket that is used – and DO NOT DARE to wash that blanket.

Mopane the baby elephant Mopane the baby elephant

The last challenge is keeping the elephant calf company. The calf spends 24 hours of the week with its’ mother and only the mother feeds it. The role of the mother must now be substituted with a caretaker as they will spend all day with the calf and feed it. When caretakers need to go home or to family they are rotated on shifts. Calves react to the change of hands. Sometimes they do not want to take milk from a certain caretaker. Other options include putting the elephants with a sheep called Lammie, a resident Pedi sheep which is a devoted surrogate mother to the orphans at HESC. The sheep acts as a good continuous companion and reduces the stress levels of the elephant calf.

Bearing all challenges in mind: raising an elephant calf is a lot like raising a baby. One day you can look back at the mountains and valleys and at the giant elephant feet that strolled through your heart.

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