Explanation:  On May 3 a friend sent me an email forwarding an account of an elephant giving birth in the Oliphants River inside Kruger Natinal Park, South Africa.  It’s an amazing document which I immediately wanted to share on this blog.  It seems to have been forwarded four times before it came to me.  I made some efforts to trace the originator of the report, the photographer who took these photos.  That proved impossible.  I have changed the way the type was set up and cut a bit from the ending.  Otherwise it is published here as I received it.  So my apologies to the originator for using his document without permission or attribution.  But I’m assuming that once a document goes on the internet, it becomes the property of internet users.  So enjoy this amazing document!  And many thanks to the originator of the document for recording this incident and sharing it – as it turns out – with the internet world.

Kruger National Park, 2009

My friend asked me if I’d write up a bit about the experience I had in Kruger in November, 2009, when I lucked upon an amazing scene.  I’d been driving north from Satara camp toward Letaba.

It was a stinking hot day and, as it was approaching noon and most animals were content with settling under some scrap of shade,  I was heading back for some lunch and a rest before heading back.  I stopped on the bridge over the Olifants River to get out stretching my legs.  The cool thing about this bridge (and a few others) is that is one of the few places where it’s deemed safe to get out and stretch your legs.

If you’re not familiar with Kruger, one of the beauties of this park is that you can drive freely just about anywhere where there is a road.  But you have to stay in your vehicle except for certain designated areas, such as the rest camps.  The bridges are long enough that I think it is felt that as long as you stay in the middle of the bridge (and it’s marked by painted lines), it’s safe to get out.  And these bridges are good areas for wildlife viewing because there is often a lot of activity around the rivers.

On this day, there were a group of elephants in the water, cooling off, and a number of the juveniles were just having a blast in the water.  They were rolling and spraying each other, jumping on each other’s backs – just having fun time. It was an irresistible occasion for photography.

I’d spent I’d estimate close to an hour photographing these guys. Understand that at any given point, there were a handful of people standing on the bridge. Most people would come and watch for a short while and then get into their air conditioned car to go look for something more dramatic. But, just as I was about to pack it in myself, I heard someone from the north end of the bridge call out, “Hey, this one’s having a baby!” I grabbed my cameras and ran down to that end of the bridge. And I began to see something I never thought I’d have the privilege of seeing in my life.

When I first arrived, I looked down on a smallish elephant, standing in the water with a large amniotic sac protruding out of her.

An amniotic sac appears.  At this point, there was no doubt what was going on here….

And in a few seconds, the baby splashed into the water amidst a great amount of trumpeting from the new mother.

Newborn baby drops into the water, surrounded by amniotic sac.  Note the older female nearby with the juvenile who seems confused or frightened.

Mother seems confused as baby thrashes in the river while ‘aunt’ looks on.

The river here is obviously not very deep – I’d guess that it is something in the neighborhood of 0.5 meters deep. But the baby cannot stand and as it thrashes in the water it seems that it could be in some danger of not being able to keep its head above water. The mother seems confused at first. But quickly a nearby female – larger and I’d presume older and perhaps more experienced – seemed to step in and assume command. I think of her as an older ‘aunt’, though obviously I can’t know the relationships between these elephants.

She began to take charge and work with her trunk and her foot to support the baby and to keep the baby’s head above water.

Mother and ‘aunt’ work to support the baby’s head and keep it out of the water.

Mother and ‘aunt’ continue to try and hold the baby’s head out of the water while the amniotic sac floats away downstream.

Even as mother and aunt worked frantically to support the baby, many others from this group of elephants began to gather around and form a protective phalanx, encircling the new addition to their extended family.

Baby continues to thrash helplessly in the water while many of the other elephants formed a protective phalanx around the newborn.  Note that even the mother has turned away from the baby, leaving only the aunt to continue to try and prop the baby’s head up.

Aunt continues to support the baby’s head.

Both mother and aunt work to hold baby’s head out of the water.  Adult uses both trunk and leg to help support the baby and keep its head above the water.

Note that baby’s ears are still ‘glued’ back on its head!

According to my image data, it was about 25 to 30 minutes after birth before the newborn began to gain its legs in any sort of a reliable way, and even that was not without incident!

Baby’s first few steps were not without incident. Luckily ‘auntie’ was there to intervene.

After perhaps 40 minutes, the baby was able to ambulate in mother’s company fairly reliably, and mother steered baby to the river on the other side (the west side) of the bridge, separating her from the rest of the group. The mother actually seemed to complain loudly when auntie approached and auntie backed off.

Something was going on there in terms of their relationships. I don’t know if the mother was basically telling auntie to ‘Butt out!’ but I am certain that it was auntie who seemed to know what to do and did most of the work in those first few critical minutes.

Once baby began to ambulate fairly reliably in the water, baby took the lead….

Mother made several attempts to steer baby out of the river, including this effort to nudge the baby out onto the bank.

Mother attempts to nudge baby out of the river, unsuccessfully.  Mother later attempted to help engineer the bank to make it easier for baby to walk out of the river….

Mother engineers the bank in an attempt to make it easier for baby to leave the water.

Baby takes mother for one more romp around the river.

At this point, I’d been standing in the sun on this bridge for perhaps two hours. The place had become packed with people – I don’t know whether people phone friends or what, but the bridge was crowded with people and cars, and I decided it was time to head back. My hands and my knees were shaking.

I knew that I’d had the privilege of seeing something extraordinary.