Today, 12 August, is World Elephant Day. It’s a day for focusing attention on the plight of the elephant species, and the need for its protection. The escalation of poaching for ivory; habitat loss; human-elephant conflict; and mistreatment of animals in captivity are just some of the threats faced by these gentle giants.
Although HESC is not an elephant sanctuary or orphanage; we are dedicated to the conservation of rare, vulnerable and endangered animal species of any kind. Naturally that includes the elephant. It must be remembered that Jabulani was nursed back to health at HESC in 1997, and subsequently became the namesake of Camp Jabulani – home to him and twelve rescued elephants from Zimbabwe.
We currently have in our care an orphaned baby elephant, and it is therefore fitting that we pay tribute to this vulnerable species by taking a closer look at what it actually takes to nurture and raise an elephant.
On the evening of 21 November 2016, a baby elephant was brought to HESC. He had been found wandering alone on the reserve next to the R40 tarred road. The young elephant, estimated to be about four months old, was in distress and dehydrated. It was for this reason that Dr Rogers administered an intravenous drip immediately on his arrival.
The baby elephant had difficulty sleeping on his first night due to the trauma he’d suffered, so Lammie, a surrogate mother, was brought in to help soothe him – and the two have been inseparable since. The baby elephant was named Shawu, after one of the seven bulls which used to roam the Kruger National Park.
Initially, Shawu did not take to his milk. This was a cause for huge concern, as dehydration is one of the primary reasons that infant orphaned elephants do not make it. In the wild, elephant calves are normally weaned at three years old, and those that are orphaned before the age of two years usually don’t survive.
Hand-rearing a baby elephant is a great challenge due to their very specific milk formula requirements – it is critical to get the balance in supplements and nutrients JUST right. Most young orphans die due to intractable diarrhoea – most likely a consequence of incompatible milk substitutes (such as human infant formula). Establishing a specialized formula has been one of our core objectives, and we are in the process of compiling an elephant milk substitute. Elephant milk has a unique composition that also changes over the course of lactation; coupled with its very specific sugars and lipids (which are not easy to come by). We are confident that when we get this substitute right, it will make a huge contribution to raising elephant calves successfully. Sadly, we know that this is an issue that will become increasingly important in future, given the pressure of declining elephant numbers due to poaching.
You can imagine the great relief to the entire team at HESC when Shawu eventually took to his bottle on his third day in. Two full days feels like an eternity when a baby is at stake!
Many can often not comprehend why it is that Shawu keeps us so busy, so we thought we’d share what a typical day in his young (and very active life) looks like…
A day in the life of Shawu
Shawu’s day officially starts when the curators bring him his first bottle of milk at 6am – this he receives very enthusiastically, following his long night of rest! He and Lammie then wander off on their own until his dedicated elephant keeper arrives at 7am.
The first task of the elephant keeper on duty (either Joshua, Simba, Liverson or Stavros from Camp Jabulani) is to take Shawu and Lammie for a brisk walk. Whenever the two four-footed mammals are lazy – which they occasionally are – the elephant keeper uses a bucket to lure them … Lammie thinks said-bucket contains pellets. Once Lammie starts following, so does Shawu. The walks help to keep the young elephant fit, in preparation for him joining the Camp Jabulani herd in future.
His next bottle is at 9am, after which Shawu often likes to take a nap. He then has playtime; which includes throwing dust or tasting/nibbling on grasses and branches that the elephant keepers bring him into contact with. This is essential to regulate his bowel movements.
As it is currently winter and the mornings are cooler, Shawu only goes for his mud bath after the 12pm feed. Playing in the mud and water is an elephant’s absolute favourite thing to do, and its easy to understand why this is his best time of the day…
Come 3pm, it is time for a run… Shawu’s keeper changes the route daily as the young elephant runs, walks and eat grass along the way. Shawu gets another bottle at 6pm and his last one at 9pm. It’s then time to retire for the night. The elephant keeper on duty will wake him up for his 12am bottle, but this is proving to be a challenge as Shawu would much rather sleep without interruption.
Shawu gets weighed twice a week. The weighing is a good indication of his state of health, as weight-loss is usually the first sign of problems.
It is through infants such as Shawu that we have learned so much about what baby elephants need in terms of physical care – but also in terms of emotional care. As with any baby or toddler, elephants require constant company and attention. Touch and affection are critical too. For the elephant keepers, no minute is unattended during a shift with Shawu.
Our ultimate goal is to introduce Shawu to the Camp Jabulani herd, where he will take his place in an established family with mothers of his own species. He will spend his time in the wild on the Kapama Reserve, and live a life as close to that as was originally intended for him.
We know that Shawu will not be our last infant elephant, and it is with this in mind that we continue to develop a blueprint in the field of orphaned elephant care, in tandem with Camp Jabulani.
So today, we pay tribute to every person and organization around the world that have made it their life purpose to ensure that this magnificent species remains on our planet for generations to come. We salute you. We respect you. We thank you.
The HESC Family