Rash of Births

My apologies for not blogging for a couple of months, work has been non-stop and access to the internet is always an obstacle to a lot of us living in remote areas with few amenities. Contrary to conventional wisdom we are not all connected.

The big news is that on May 1st we witnessed the first elephant birth at the Dzanga Clearing in nineteen years. I had always suspected that birthing was a private affair and after what we witnessed in the clearing I now understand clearly why that is probably the case. The mother, Maureena, is well known to us and had been in the clearing for a couple of days preceding the birth. She is part of a big family group that was fragmented in 2001 when I think the matriarch of the group and her adult daughter were killed. They were regular visitors to the clearing and then they abruptly disappeared. Other members of the group which included juvenile and subadult females and males kept in contact and alerted me to the situation. The family remained as intact as it could and now several of the females have attained maturity and have their own calves.

On the day of the birth Maureena was seen opposite from where we do our observations, in a pool of water used by the elephants in the clearing. I didn’t see the actual birth but one of the tourists, a young Frenchman, said to me “That female just had a baby.” I immediately dismissed what he had said when I say Maureena standing over this tiny calve wrapped in a bundle of white skin which she was trying to pull away from the baby. I captured this behavior on video tape as Maureena pulled away the skin freeing the newborn. Maureena ate all of the tissue. The calf was lying there in the pool desperately trying to stand up without too much success. Then havoc happened with many of the surrounding elephants approaching the calf to touch and smell it and in some instances trying to help it to its feet. Poor Maureena had difficulty keeping contact with the calf with a continual approach of other females and young crowding and confusing the situation. One of the younger bulls who was obviously confused tried repeatedly to mate with Maureena and at one point mounted her and then fell falling on the newborn. No damage was done and I think that might have been due to the calf being in a very muddy area which cushioned the fall. The chaos continued and it piqued the interest of all the elephants in the clearing.

Then to my right I noticed the entrance of Maureen, another member of Maureena’s group. She entered the clearing from the south with her two young calves and headed directly to Maureena and the newborn. She helped protect the calf from the crowds and we could see the newborn under Maureen’s legs while the young bull pestered Maureena. Maureen was able to move the calf from the central saline to the edge of the bai since the calf was able to stand and move, this being about thirty minutes after the birth. It was then the end of our observations and we left concerned about the calf’s safety but content that Maureen was present with the newborn and seemed to be in control of all the interested elephants.

Before we witnessed this birth at Dzanga we had been seeing many very new calves of one to three days old, something I had never seen before. A copule of the females we had seen in the clearing without newborns had given birth and then one or two days later they would appear with the newborn. This happened at least five times during the period of early April and into May. It’s always a wonderful sight to see a female one knows with a new calf and when the calf is only a day old it is extraordinary especially when we didn’t even suspect she was pregnant.

I’ve included some photos of the newest additions to the Dzanga population. All of these calves are less than a week old. The center photo is of Medina II and that calf was a day old when the photo was taken.

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Dry Season Return

My apologies regarding a lack of blogging activity, it has now been a couple of months since the last blog from Dzanga. Between a trip to the US and returning to the Central African Republic, it has been a busy time. Blogging has been low on the priority list and finally I find myself with some time to devote to composing an update.

Returning I found the team in charge had done a great job and there had been no major problems and elephant numbers were healthy with a relax atmosphere indicating no poaching threat in the immediate area of the Dzanga Clearing. This is always a worry during my absence: the security of the clearing and the conscientiousness of the people in the field. So it was more than relief I was feeling to return to a place I know well and to be reassured. The feeling was more about reaping positive results from a lot of effort. Although we have been able to protect the immediate area, the threat of poaching remains a problem in the area of Central Africa where reports from other sites indicates an upsurge of illegal killing. The Chinese and Japanese were granted permission to buy ivory stocks by CITES and this transaction bodes poorly for the future of Central African elephants.

Upon my return it was still the height of the rainy season so work remained a bit difficult while dodging the storms which seem more and more virulent. However last week the dry season seemed to have arrived over night. There was that distinct change in the air, more of a smokey, dry feeling with temperatures rising provoking much commentary by all about how hot it was. With the dryness there has also been a remarkable change in the clearing, the elephants sensing that the dry season is here. The first most characteristic change is not only the numbers of elephants in the clearing but the number of large males who have found their way to the clearing. With the abrupt arrival of the dry season the bulls arrive like clockwork and began their excavation of the clearing in their search for minerals. One big difference at the clearing is the change in the course of the stream which traverses its surface. During one of the big storms in July the stream, which is also called the Dzanga switched course and now flows further to the east side of the clearing. This has change the location of a few of the favorite holes which had traditionally been excavated during the dry season. This change however has not affected the dry season behavior of the bulls who spend their time digging, waiting and challenging each other over favorite mineral holes.

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Dzanga Clearing – November 28th, 2008

I have included a photo of the clearing from yesterday, a week after the beginning of the dry season. There is lots of excavation of the bai surface by elephants. The only other mammals present are the group of forest buffalo who travel between Dzanga and another series of clearings to the east. With the dryness the number of sitatunga has dropped dramatically from a normal dozen to only one or two during the afternoon observations. With the increase in numbers we have seen several family groups reunited, some with newborns, making the reunions all that more exciting.

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Guards and Trackers with Tusks, October 2008

A week after my return the local guard patrol found a dead elephant about two kilometers from camp. The carcass which they estimated to be about two weeks old still had its tusks. They were enormous and I estimated each one to weigh more than 25 kilograms. Even with all my strength I found it impossible to lift one of them. Our guess optimistically was that the bull was old and died of natural causes judging by the size of the tusks. However the other scenario, and this is common enough, is that the bull could have been shot and then ran a considerable distance before dying. In either case it was impressive to see a bull with such sizeable tusks in an area where poaching is common. The forest provides some protection making it difficult to eliminate all of the big tuskers, unlike in the savannah where hunting is a much easier venture.

With the arrival of the bulls work becomes more interesting because it is this part of the year when we see individual elephants we haven’t seen in a couple of years. This is particularly the case of the males in the population. During the past week we have seen several males whom we haven’t seen for a couple of years who confine their visits to the long dry season. Yesterday, Izzat spent all of the afternoon in the clearing. Returning to camp in the evening I was able to reidentify him with the identity cards and saw that the last time I had seen him was in early December of 2006. This was the case of another bull named Barrymore who appeared last week after an absence of one year. The dry season is a strong signal to many of the larger bulls for a return to Dzanga. How this timely navigation occurs will always remain a mystery.

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Izza

Poaching Disaster for the Elephants Africa Wide

I am back in the United States until the beginning of October. This is a difficult time because I am thinking about Dzanga most of the time and hope that the assistants and guards are being vigilant about possible poaching activity. Before I left there was definitely a problem in the area, the elephants were nervous and their numbers were low for this part of the year. I was reluctant to leave knowing that there was poaching pressure in the area around Dzanga.

Bais are so important for monitoring and give an immediate assessment of poaching pressure, especially in the case of elephants who of all animal species are the most sensitive to human presence, particularly negative presence. But then they are the prime target of poachers. So their fear is what protects them in the end.

Being here in the US has brought home the terrific challenge at hand, that of protecting and conserving elephants all over Africa. Perusing the internet and receiving articles pertaining to elephants sent by Melissa Groo from the Save the Elephants list serve have saddened me. African elephants are up against the wall and are under poaching pressure continent wide. Kenya has seen an upsurge in poaching and now the Namibian government has decided to grant hunting licenses for professional hunting for some of their remaining big tuskers. behind the illicit trade are the Chinese who have been allowed to buy ivory legally from the CITES decision but then illegal trade in ivory has been traced to the Chinese. So my question is why are we rewarding bad behavior by allowing the Chinese to have it both ways ?

So what can we do about this ? There are too many bad decisions made by people so far removed from reality, decisions that are impacting species like the African elephant. These decision makers are far from the daily grind of African reality, making crucial decisions which make our jobs on the ground so much more difficult. Instead of thinking of the planet’s biodiversity which is in crisis they see the world as commodity driven reducing a magnificent animal to a trade item to be displayed in someone’s living room or turned into jewelry. We can predict the scenario, when the elephant numbers reach critical proportions there will be outcry about how few elephants are left and all the major conservation organizations will launch campaigns highlighting this crisis.

Now is the time to act when we still have a chance to stem the current levels of poaching. The challenges are perhaps insurmontable, the corruption, the poverty, and the apathy on all sides. The outcry is there but we need action and people who are not afraid to take up the challenge.

More Individuals

Throughout the years we have become acquainted with many elephant families and their evolution, which is effected by births and deaths and moreover poaching. One of the main problems with studying forest elephants at Dzanga is that although the site is the best that exists for studying this species, poaching has impacted their social organization and behavior.

At the beginning of the study in the early 1990’s one of the first groups we became familiar with was a large group known as the “Fourth Tuskless” family. The matriarch was an older female named 4th Tuskless who had very big ears and was a regular visitor to the clearing. Within the group there were four other adult females and their offspring and although they were not always together in a big group we were able to determine that all of these individuals were related with the group totaling over 20 individuals. Throughout the 1990’s this group was seen regularly in the clearing but in 2002 4th Tuskless and her adult daughter Esme were no longer sighted in the clearing leading me to believe that they had been killed. The first hint of their disappearance was the sighting of two of 4th Tuskless’s daughters, a subadult and juvenile female who both had distinct ear marks.

Since the disappearance of 4th Tuskless the group has reorganized itself with two of the younger females giving birth. The first birth was a male calf born to Fabula in 2004. Her son at a very young age injured his trunk which was probably cut by a wire snare half way up his length. When we first saw this injury we thought that the trunk would fall off but today four years later, his trunk is still intact and he manages to use it to drink, but the problem for him is to eat because the end is no longer prehensile and he is not able to grasp vegetation by the end of his trunk. Trunks are essential to the health of an elephant and are necessary for feeding. In the photo below is Fabula II in the hole, and a friend and if you look carefully you can see the trunk and where it is cut.

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Fabula II & Friend

Another member of this large group is Fleur who gave birth during July to her first calf, Fleur II, a female. Fleur I is a very young female and one of 4th Tuskless’s daughters. Now the leftovers of this extensive group have reorganized themselves. One of the older females, Maureen, is still present in the bai and a regular visitor to the clearing and is observed with her two youngest calves. What I find astonishing is the resilency of these animals and despite intense hunting pressure they have been able to overcome the breakdown of their group and they are able to recognize each other and maintain their family unit.

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Fleur II and Big Friend

Anti Poaching

For the past week there have been few elephants at the clearing and we suspect that there has been poaching in the area. Clearings where monitored are an excellent means for evaluating poaching pressure in an area. With this information we were able to contact the Dzanga Sangha Project who mobilized an extra antipoaching unit to investigate the area where we suspected poaching activity. Yesterday the numbers picked up in the clearing and instead of the ten to twelve individuals we saw over forty in the clearing. Of the forty many individuals we had observed during the week which means the same individuals had remained in the area despite the poaching pressure.

Good News ! The extra team which was sent out to patrol suspect area found a hunting camp a couple of kilometers from the clearing. When the patrol came upon the camp there were still people present and they immediately fled but the guards were able to confiscate the gun, a home made affair which is locally called a “yalinga.” These are common weapons here and are used to kill small game.

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Guard With Confiscated “Yalinga”

The people who fled were not only hunting but also mining for diamonds which are very common in the area. The diamonds are found in river beds where people dig and sift the soil by hand which is a labor intensive activity. The Central African Republic is rich in diamonds which are found throughout the country. Below is a picture of the guard patrol with the stuff they confiscated. Not only did they find a gun but also found equipment for diamond mining which included sifters for finding the diamonds in the river sand.

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Guard Patrol with Confiscated Material

It is this type of effort which provides essential protection to the wildlife on the ground. We pay attention to all sign of poaching and inform the anti-poaching unit of the Dzanga Sangha Project of any suspect activity. We would like to thank Cyril Pelissier for sending out the additional guard patrol which resulted in the confiscation of a gun and other material. Hopefully now the bai activity will return to normal and the numbers of elephant and other species will increase.

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.

Some Thoughts

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Moses

Malcolm and Moses are still in musth and were observed in the clearing yesterday. Both of them have been observed several time during the past month. Moses was there when we arrived in the afternoon and then left with Malcolm arriving shortly thereafter. Both made the rounds of the bai looking in vain for a possible mate but neither of them were successful. Also in the clearing was Maddy and her two offspring, she left the bai during the mid afternoon leaving in the direction of our return route to camp. We encountered her in the small river below our camp and she blocked our normal route and refused to leave after we tried to discourage her by slapping the surface of the water with a machete. She would look startled and back up a little huddling with her two daughters wondering who were and what we were doing. We gave up the hope of her moving our of our way and we continued home by way of a wet detour by wading home in the river, not the preferable route. Maddy finally made it to camp after dark where she thrashed in the nearby forest before coming into camp. She is familiar with the camp and is now a regular visitor. So far she has been well behaved and hasn’t destroyed anything. I find it reassuring that elephants come into camp at night even if they disrupt our sleep, their sense of safeness in this area shows us the effectiveness of our work in trying to protect them.

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Maddy and Her Daughters

There were some comments on observations made in the clearing concerning the two calves, one with the retracted legs and the other who had a broken leg. One question was whether to intervene or not. My feelings about this have been made in the context in which I live, that is in a country which doesn’t have decent health care for the overwhelming majority of its citizens. So to think about mobilizing the resources to treat an elephant here for me is out of the question, since the resources and expense could be used for a greater purpose, that is to protect the area to insure the future of the species.

More importantly I see these instances as an opportunity in developing a sense of empathy for these animals, by discussing what we have observed and how it might have happened and what will eventually happen to these individuals. I think this discussion will help people think about the situation of wild animals and help them realize that animals also have problems and like people face difficult times.

This is something I have noticed with the people I work with. Over time they have observed elephants and other species in the clearing and they have observed them in a way they never have seen before. At the clearing unlike in the forest we have a clear view of the elephants and easily observe how family units interact with each other and with other unrelated individuals. One day this really hit home while observing a mother and calf in the clearing, one of the trackers watched in amazement, he turned to me and said, they are not animals, they are people. He was so impressed by elephant behavior and how a mother and calf interacted much in the same way as a human mother and her infant.

This is not to say that people here are converted to conservation by these daily insights into animal behavior. Here in a very poor country where most people are subsistence farmers, conservation is an almost impossible task. The main obstacle is economics because until the standard of living is improved people will exploit all natural resources to make it through the day. For me it is still a miracle that a place such as Dzanga still exists since it represents one of the few places in the region where one can still observe a wildness like no other.

News From the Clearing

Yesterday brought a surprise visitor to the bai. About six months ago we observed a newborn calf whose front legs were retracted. Because of this she is walking on her knees. She looked so tired and thin but was persistent and kept up with her group which consisted of her mother and an older sister as well as another adult female and her juvenile daughter.

Yesterday in the late afternoon I noticed a group of elephants entering the clearing from the south and realized that the adult female in the rear of the group was Gutki I, the mother of the disabled calf and immediately I thought the calf was dead. However I backed up with the spotting scope and their was the calf bumbling along. She is sadly enough in the same position and still keeping up with the group despite the handicap. The calf’s older sister is often observed draping her trunk across the calf’s back and I am not sure if that is reassurance or prodding. We wonder if the calf will survive in this condition or die when she can’t keep up with the group.

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Today I remained in camp to attend to accounting and report writing but the trackers went to the clearing to count and do observations. Upon their return they said they had seen a newborn who had a broken leg and was limping badly. No news on who it might have been. We did however discuss how this might have happened and they agreed that the calf had probably stepped into a hole while running. They appeared very empathetic and concerned and felt badly there was nothing that we could do to help. Perhaps tomorrow I will find the same calf in the clearing and identify the group.

In camp another sleepless night with night visitors, a group of three elephants, a mother and her two daughters. We know the group from the clearing and had seen them in the afternoon. They have come to camp in the late afternoon to check out the garbage pit and later in the night come to eat the lawn. This time I was awoken at midnight by the sound of them eating in the area next to my house. It was the distinct sound of them ripping the grass out of the ground and then chewing it. I tried to discourage them to leave by exiting the house and illuminating them with a flashlight but it didn’t work and they returned immediately. Finally after three tries they finally gave up and left. Elephants unlike people do not sleep for extended periods of time and are basically active all the time.

Still a Calmness

We are still experiencing a period of calm in the area with our daily observations of elephant numbering between 70 and 100 elephants. Around camp which is located two kilometers from the clearing we have heard no gunshots so the area is safe for the moment. Three days ago however I saw two leopard skins that had been confiscated by park guards along with a massive amount of bush meat. The trove had been confiscated in the area north of the clearing which is infiltrated by poachers from a village notorious for illegal activity. One wonders how long such a level of poaching can be sustained for the smaller game.

We are also seeing a lot of musth amongst the younger bulls of the population. During the last three weeks we have seen three younger bulls in musth as well as three of the older well known bulls also in musth, Menelaus, Moses, and Malcolm. Orlo, a bull I described in an earlier blog, was observed guarding a female although he was not in musth.

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Menelaus & Malcolm

Although there has been an abundance of musth observed in the clearing, the only copulation we have witnessed was between an non-musth male and a young female, Matoma III. Below is a photo of the mating. To the right is Matoma III’s mother, Matoma I and the younger sister of Matoma III, Matoma IV. The male was not guarding Matoma III but chased her around the bai and mated with her once he caught up with her. Matoma I and IV vocalized during the act and I could only interpret their sounds as ones of protest. This is usually the reaction of the other elephants during a mating, a chorus of vocalizations which start during the copulation and continue well after its completion. A lot of nervous energy in the air. This mating lasted less than a minute and then the male wandered off. Matoma III was observed on subsequent days in the clearing but attracted no other males.

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Matoma III Mating

During a musth guard of a female there is far more romance than the scene depicted above. Musth males guarding females protect her from the younger randy males and allow her access to favored mineral sites in the bai. There is a rhythm to the scene and the younger and less dominant males skirt the edges of the clearing keeping close tabs on the courting couple. This guard usually last about 2-3 days when there are several copulations.

We should be well into a rainy period but since the end of May the rains have been scant which is unusual for this period of the year. There is cloud build up, thunder and lightning but very little rain. The surface of the clearing is dry and the elephants are still able to excavate holes for the extraction of minerals, an unusal sight for the month of June.

Peace For the Moment

First of all I’d like to thank Melissa for her generous donation which will help us continue the work here at Dzanga. Thanks Melissa mille fois. These donations will help us defray the everyday expenses and give us time to devote to work.

The situation at the Dzanga Clearing for the past week has been a calm peaceful time for the forest elephants. Numbers have been well over one hundred during the daylight hours. Despite the peacefulness we are still maintaining our vigilance of the area. The poachers for the moment are not working in the immediate area around Dzanga but their presence is not far from the site. On my return from Bangui last weekend we drove through one of the villages which is notorious for poaching activity and sitting outside his house was one of the worst poachers in the region. He was making no secret of his presence and had recently returned home after laying low during the military operation against poachers. I can only think that he is well protected by some of those in power. This is perhaps one of the most discouraging parts of working here, that despite the effort there are always those untouchables that will always remain outside the law.

Back to a more positive note. Today the big bongo group was back and there were close to 30 bongos in the middle of the clearing where they spent the afternoon. There was a notable lack of adult males which we had seen on previous occasions a few weeks ago so the mating season is over. The only other species besides bongo were the sitatunga who are seen everyday in the bai. The individuals we observed were mostly female and their young with one impressive male amongst them. One of the younger males we observe we have known since he was born. The sexual dimorphism between the males and females is striking, the females being a brilliant orange and males a chocolate brown. It has only been in the last couple of years when we have been seeing adult males on a regular basis, before that it was rare to see adult males in the clearing.

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Male Sitatungas

The spathe of new elephant newborns are doing well, learning the ways of the clearing. Tess III’s newborn planted himself in front of the observation platform the other day and amuse us with his antics. He spent much of the afternoon with Teddy a juvenile male and also a member of the same family group. There was much touching and exploring. Yesterday the calf got into a pushing match with another young calf a bit bigger than himself but this didn’t deter him from continuing his childlike aggression. Knowing these individuals and watching them grow over the years has never ceased to amaze me. So many of them who are now adults we have known since they were born. We wonder however how the future bodes for the newest generation.

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Tess III’s Newborn