As a guide in Africa, I have a wish list as I’m sure many guides do, things I would love to see, rare sightings I’d love to witness during my guiding career and I have been fortunate enough to tick off a few over the last few years. Having said that, every now and then we have sightings that no words or pictures can describe.
This afternoon’s events were just one of those moments. Myself and guest Irene Nathanson headed out on game drive. As we were leaving for game drive we were discussing our plan for the afternoon, the Sparta pride had been found in the morning and so we decided to try our luck and see if we could find them.
About 45 minutes into drive we were heading down a road called Circuit South when we stumbled upon a breeding herd of elephants and from a distance myself and Richard could see that something was not quite right. The herd seemed unsettled but there were no obvious clues as to why. They scattered running in all directions so we stopped the vehicle, switched off and observed from a distance. After a while the elephants seemed to relax and started feeding. We started the vehicle and began approaching.
There were about 40 elephants all together, spread out over about 200 meters. We were watching one of the larger females feeding when we noticed something clearly was going on. There was plenty of rumbling noises between the herd and we noticed that even though they were feeding they were not completely relaxed… Richard and I were confused as to why.
I picked up my binoculars and started scanning the herd when I noticed that one of the females looked uncomfortable and awkward. This female was not eating and was walking from side to side and back and forth. A closer look with the binoculars revealed that there was a massive bulge below her tail. I showed Irene and Richard and the thought occurred to me that perhaps she was going to give birth, a big call to make. This behaviour of the herd and the large female is something I have never witnessed before.
This particular female was more vocal than the others to the extent that she let out what sounded like a squeal, a roar and a rumble all at the same time. Within seconds the rest of the herd came running from all over the clearing. Once they approached her, they continued to rub their bodies against hers and kept on touching her with their trunks. Even though we cannot understand what they were saying, you could definitely feel it.
The female was constantly moving from side to side and the other members of the herd stayed right by her side. The adults surrounded her and constantly made sure she stayed right in the middle of the group at all times.
The elephant then reversed out of the herd and we noticed what looked like orange jelly dangling from her back legs. This is the amniotic sac which protects the baby during pregnancy. We had all been discussing what we thought was happening and when we saw this sac it was the moment we realised that we might in fact see something that is seldom witnessed in the wild…
The elephant birth was going to happen sooner rather than later.
If you look closely you can see the feet of the baby elephant as it makes its way out of its mother and into the world!
An extraordinary moment – watching the mom give birth.
I immediately reached for my camera but after a couple of minutes chose to put it back in my camera case and observe this sight instead. I knew that if I was to see an elephant give birth, the memory in my head would be more vivid than any picture could ever capture.
After about 20 minutes of the female moving around and pushing, we saw the calf’s feet appear and we all knew it was not long until the baby would drop. The female moved around in circles for a couple of minutes before she gave one last push and the baby dropped to the ground…
The calf can be seen on the ground in the middle, protected by the rest of the herd.
It was incredible to see the reaction from the rest of the herd. All the adults surrounded the calf and began touching it with their trunks – almost as if to welcome the new born into herd and to make sure it was fit and healthy. The adult started kicking sand and dust onto the calf which I am sure was to absorb the afterbirth…
You could see how each adult tried to help the calf to its feet using their trunks and feet. It took about 13 minutes for the calf to stand although very wobbly the calf’s first instinct was to suckle from mom.
We managed to find the herd the very next day again and were all delighted to see the new family member.
The most amazing part of this whole experience was not only watching the elephant being born but to see how caring and compassionate the herd is towards one another. It was a beautiful sighting and I am thankful to the herd for allowing us to view this special moment.
Written by: Trevor Ryan McCall-Peat
Photographed by: Irene Nathanson
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.