Departures and Arrivals

This week there was the death of a newborn whose story started to unfold five days ago when we observed the newborn while it was still alive and observed in the clearing. We realized that the mother wasn’t present and the newborn, a female, was being watched over by two sub adult females, neither of which who were lactating. They paid close attention to the baby but despite its attempts to suckle from both of them there was no milk to be had. Several times the baby would cry in distress and the two young females would try and comfort her. This went on all afternoon and I knew that it was a matter of a day or two before the calf would die. Later in the afternoon the three of them left the clearing, the newborn walking between the two young females. I tried to imagine what had happened to the calf’s mother, probably poached in the area nearby.

Two days ago at the clearing we were starting the afternoon observations when Bounga, one of the assistants, asked me if an infant he could see at the end of the bai, barely visible without binoculars, was sleeping. I looked through the spotting scope and saw this tiny infant lying down at the southern end of the bai. I watched closely and it didn’t move, often when elephants are sleeping their ears will periodically flap but this wasn’t happening. I also looked in the infant’s vicinity and there were no adult females so I concluded that the calf was dead and in all likelihood this was the same calf we had seen without its mother. The calf looked like it had died only a few hours before. Occasionally other elephants would approach it to smell it but the most dramatic reaction was that of two young females, not the same ones we saw with the calf while it was alive, who smelled the corpse and then act very alarmed. They were not at all comfortable with the situation. They would back off from the calf’s body and then approached it, this happening several times during the course of a half hour.

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Giant Forest Hogs on Elephant Carcass

Today the corpse was succumbing to scavengers, the first being the palm nut vultures who were waiting for the arrival of giant forest hogs who are often observed feeding on carcasses in the forest environment. Their role is to open up the carcass making it accessible to other scavengers. A few other elephants approached the site and again smelled the body and showed alarm. No sign of the two young females we last saw with the calf before she died.

With the death of the calf there were two new calves recorded to known females. One was a male, a first born to a female belonging to a group called the Fourth Tuskless The matriarch, 4th Tuskless, was a regular visitor to the bai until June of 2002. She and her group stopped showing up in the clearing and I then started to notice the younger members of the group, some of them the offspring of 4th Tuskless. This group has reorganized itself and now consists of Fabula and her first calf, a young male as well as several sub adult females and one of the offspring of 4th Tuskless, a large juvenile female. The newest addition, a male I estimated to be only a couple of days old having seen his mother without him seven days ago. He was very healthy and keeping up with its mother who walked at a brisk pace during much of the afternoon. They met up with another member of the group, Maureen, whom I have know since the beginning of the study and a regular visitor to the bai. Maureen’s latest offspring, who is about a year old, became very interested in the newborn and left the bai with it and its mother. Maureen then realized that her calf was missing and left the bai in the direction of the trio. She later returned to the clearing with her calf as well as the new mother and her newborn.

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June I & II

The June group which is made up of nine individuals also has a new calf. We hadn’t seen the mother of the calf, June III for four years and the last time we saw her was when she had her first calf, also a female. The only way we were able to identify the mother today was because she was associating with June I whom I think is her mother. June I is very familiar to us and is very easy to recognize. She is the matriarch of this group and has very long tusks and huge ears. We usually see her with June II, another of her daughters who has two calves. June II is tuskless and has a very distinct physique, long legged and a very angular head. The back of her trunk is devoid of pigment and very pink.

Although we are always observing this population of forest elephants from a fixed point, there is always another piece of their large social network being presented to us on a daily basis. To date we have identified over 4000 elephants who use the clearing and we are still finding out about their social connections and family relationships.

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  1. TheTeach, Seattle
    Posted July 28, 2008 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Is it fairly common for youngsters to not survive, for whatever reason? I mean is there a high (natural)mortality? I don’t want to include poaching of mothers as that isn’t a natural cause, really. Short estress and long gestation periods would seem to minimize the number of births over time. Therefore, I would expect that a good portion of the infants survive to adulthood; when human created factors are removed from the equation, namely poaching and pastoralism. That’s too bad about the baby. I hope the mother wasn’t a victim of poaching, but I guess that’s just the reality of conditions in the field. It would seem that every newborn is critical to the overall longterm health of this population. Thanks for the update. I wish for calm, peace, and much life at the bai and in the surrounding forest.

  2. Wanda, Atlanta
    Posted July 29, 2008 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Why is the one tuckless — were they taken and she survived – I guess I need to read up on the “tusk”!

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