Elephants are well known for their strong family bonds and protective parenting skills, not to mention powerful females. All those seemed to be on display in a brief, dramatic video that went viral this week.
It was captured by cameras at the Seoul Grand Park Zoo, where a very young Asian elephant calf took a sudden plunge into a pool. The video didn’t capture sound, but the sense of urgency is clear: The female next to the baby seems to start to panic, and a larger female across the pond immediately spins around and rushes over. The two adults, unable to reach the baby, enter the water and herd the calf to shallower ground.
Was this truly a rescue? Was it unusual? To answer those questions, we turned to Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, an adjunct professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and a prominent expert on elephant family structures. She’s the author of six nonfiction books about elephants, including one about baby elephants, as well as a fictional thriller series about the ivory trade.
O’Connell-Rodwell wrote to us from Etosha National Park in Namibia, where she’s doing fieldwork. Here are her takeaways:
It was probably a noisy few moments.
Even though it might not seem like this elephant calf is in any real danger, a baby elephant can’t swim until it’s several months old. And falling into deeper water like this could also cause the baby to bellow in alarm. And given how quickly the others responded, I’m assuming that’s indeed the case. When a baby screams, its mother, sisters and other adult females in the family come to its rescue. It’s obvious that these two females are particularly bonded to the baby, and I assume given the size difference and assertiveness, that the one that came running from afar is the matriarch of this small group and understands the danger and was quite agitated (most likely rumbling loudly). I also assume that the small individual that is running back and forth in the pen in the background is upset that the calf is in trouble and the others are distraught. I’m assuming that there are a lot of vocalizations cuing this onlooker’s behavior.
This kind of rescue is common in the wild — but adults have to learn how to be good lifeguards.
This image depicts two adult females (Big Momma on the left and Nandi on the right) within a family group coming to the rescue of a calf that has fallen into a water trough at my elephant field site. Big Momma and Nandi kneel down and use their trunks to scoop the baby out. There was very little drama in this particular situation. This coordinated effort is very telling of a mature family with excellent communication. Big Momma is the matriarch and a calming influence. I’ve seen younger families where the younger females panic under the same circumstance and aren’t very good at coordinating a rescue. There’s often a lot of confusion, running back and forth, trumpeting and sometimes a distraught mother will even shove others out of the way that are trying to help to make sure that their baby doesn’t get hurt.
In this image, a matriarch, Mia, steps into the chaotic cluster of young females and pulls a baby out of a trough while the others look on as if uncertain as to what to do to help.
Sometimes, the adults have to get creative.
I’ve witnessed a particularly tiny newborn fall into a trough, and the mother blew bubbles under the baby to try to lift it out without hurting it. It took a long time, but it worked! Here’s another mom’s solution. It’s awkward, but functional.
Baby elephants really, really love water.
But the shallows are safer until they learn to swim.