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Bull Elephants Display ‘Mothering Behavior’ Toward Orphaned Calves

By Gini Cowell

While we were watching a group of 13 bull elephants resting underneath an acacia tree just before midday last September, we noticed that in among their pillars of legs were much smaller, miniature legs and trunks. Two calves!

Only when the bulls began to shift and spread out a little could the calves be seen clearly. Both were males that appeared to be around the ages of five and three and a half—no longer completely milk dependent but still too young to be without their mothers.

In amongst the enormous pillars of legs and trunks, miniature legs and trunks could be seen. Photo: Gini Cowell
In amongst the enormous pillars of legs and trunks, miniature legs and trunks could be seen. Photo: Gini Cowell
The bulls each took turns watching over the calves. Photo: Gini Cowell
The bulls each took turns watching over the calves. Photo: Gini Cowell

The younger one had half his tail missing, but because there was no blood or any indication of a fresh wound, we suspected it was the result of an earlier hyena attack.

After scanning the area and seeing no female elephants, the immediate conclusion was that these two young elephants were orphans, a sad and very likely possibility with the ongoing poaching crisis across the continent.

Wanting to make sure this was indeed the situation, we observed them for hours and days. Initially, we’d hoped that they’d only been somehow separated from their families and would reunite at some point.

But each passing day was confirmation of a far more tragic circumstance. Both calves seemed to be, miraculously, maintaining pace with their massive guardians and feeding fairly normally.

The bulls each took turns watching over the calves. Photo: Gini Cowell
Tepesi approaches Half Tail. Photo: Gini Cowell

I say “fairly normally” because when we first found them, the younger calf was not eating properly but rather play-feeding—nibbling on a bush and swinging a branch about with his trunk but not actually eating.

By the evening, however, the three-year-old calf had gained some momentum in his appetite, easing our concerns somewhat.

Once we felt certain that the calves had no mothers, our first reaction was to inform the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in hopes of rescuing them, but unfortunately because the calves were both over three years old, this wasn’t going to be possible.

Despite not being able to intervene, we continued to monitor the calves and the bulls.

Bulls as Guardians

The more time we spent with them, the clearer it became that these bulls were indeed their guardians. I started to pick up subtle body language between the adult males and the juveniles. For example, one day a particular bull seemed to be the designated caretaker, “herding” the calves, and the next day it would be a different male.

The oldest bull and apparent leader, Oloropile, was slightly less tolerant of the calves if they got too close or tried to browse on the same branch at the same time.

But Oloropile too, perhaps not so different from a stern grandfather figure, showed them kindness in his own way. As mother elephants do, the bulls would “shelter” the calves, allowing them to stand or even lie down between their legs.

For almost two weeks we observed this unusual group of elephants, and on the fourth day things had changed slightly: Two of the bulls and one of the calves were missing. Did they leave to try and find a family herd with females? That sounds far-fetched but not impossible.

The older calf who looked to be around 5 or 6 years old. Photo: Gini Cowell
The older calf who looked to be around 5 or 6 years old. Photo: Gini Cowell

The remaining bulls and the youngest calf stayed together, though. Whenever we found them, the little fellow, whom we referred to fondly as Half Tail, was always in the center of the group.

The rotational “nanny system” of bulls watching over the calf also continued almost routinely. Murran, one of the younger males, and Tepesi showed the most interest in Half Tail, and I almost always found one of them either close behind the calf or checking on him in some way.

On one day when they were all resting in a thicket, I could just see the calf through binoculars, and he was sleeping peacefully, much as he would if he were with his mother, on the ground just beside one of the bulls, possibly Murran, shaded from the sun by his big body.

Suddenly on the eleventh day, all the bulls and little Half Tail moved away from their usual spot.

It was very dry at the time, and they likely left in search of water. We couldn’t find them after that, because they’d disappeared into some very thick woodland.

We hope that both the bulls and the calves are healthy and safe. We do think they’re still together, or perhaps they’ve come across a family herd, which the calves have joined.

The rangers have seen enough sign in a nearby area to hint that these very same elephants could well be around, so we’re keeping a lookout.

What a wonderful outcome it would be if these two baby elephants are able to grow up under the patronage of such magnificent, amazing role models.

Both calves were almost always found at the very centre of the group, much as they would be if they were with their family herd. Photo: Gini Cowell
Both calves were almost always found at the very centre of the group, much as they would be if they were with their family herd. Photo: Gini Cowell

Trauma and Loss of the Worst Kind

There were times when I felt that Half Tail was looking and feeling depressed, no doubt a result of his recent trauma. His eyes had an acute sadness and appeared downcast, and his movements unsure, forlorn.

We know that elephants, so deeply emotional, must be aware of the world in which they live. I personally believe that elephants are aware of their species’ plight and of poaching.

I also think they know that it’s their ivory the poachers are after. Are elephants so intellectually advanced as to feel helpless amid a human war of greed? Is it possible that they’re trying to live their lives to the fullest while they can, not knowing what tomorrow will hold?

It’s absolutely terrible to know that these little elephant calves, at the beginning of their lives, have already experienced trauma and loss of the worst kind.

We do feel that there’s a small ray of hope for them, and it’s a bit of a consolation to see that they’re able to receive some care and protection with these bulls in their lives—as well as a second chance to survive.

We know with absolute certainty that these two calves wouldn’t have got this far if it weren’t for Oloropile and his comrades.

What’s most fascinating to me is that enormous male elephants, thought of as loners, have banded together and come to the aid of two young, vulnerable members of their species.

Gini Cowell was born and raised in Kenya. She lives in a camp in Greater Olarro Conservancy where she helps run a conservation project call Elephant Aware. Since 2011 she has studied elephants with Joyce Poole’s collaboration and mentorship.

Comments

  1. Tracey Takacs
    Ontario Canada
    January 26, 8:17 am

    My heart breaks for all the elephants. Love your articles about their lives and times. Please keep us posted. Did you ever find out what happened to the other calf and bulls?

  2. Bonnie Andelee
    United States
    January 25, 3:31 pm

    Kudos Gina,excellent observations and article.Documenting bulls exiting empathetic and mothering bevahior is huge. One more reason among so may as to why we need to save this species.❤️❤️

  3. Bonnie Andelee
    U.S.
    January 25, 3:26 pm

    Excellent observation and article…Gina
    This is huge…showing that the Bulls share empathetic behavior
    Kudos❤️❤️

  4. Virginia Woolf
    New Zealand
    January 24, 8:12 pm

    Most interesting article written from first hand observations about the behaviour of elephants. It’s indeed most revealing what can be continually learnt about elephants from close observation. It is to be hoped that these infants will survive with the continued protection of and ‘nannying’ by the bulls despite having lost their mothers. Tragic what is happening to disrupt elephant families and affect their survival as a result of the poaching crisis as well as human/wildlife conflict.