July 28th 2006 – – –
It’s the height of the dry season, and this year the reservoir is full of elephants. Last year, they didn’t come down at all – on my very last day in August, I saw just one group crossing it in a hurry. This year, around every corner there is a large group of elephants. There must have been several hundred animals altogether, including calves. It’s almost like what I’ve read of African elephants – but these groups are very distinctly separated. The individuals in them don’t seem to be there by chance. Instead, there are certain elephants who seem to be found ‘together’ a lot of the time, though not always. Were they families? Extended families? Who knew.
Blanche was one of the ‘B’s. The others were Bianca – she seemed to be the oldest, and if so maybe she qualified as a matriarch – Bitsy, Bashi, Baretail, Bali (who had a crooked tail), and Batik along with a gaggle of calves. Blanche was so-named because most of her tail hairs were white. She must have already been pregnant when the study began. We saw Bitsy nearly always with Bianca, but Blanche and Bashi were sometimes off on their own.
We had spent most of the afternoon further afield, surrounded by an enormous group. They grazed close to the water; some individuals came down to drink as many as six times in as many hours. Now the sun is setting and it’s time to leave.
At the very last bend, just on the edge of where the short grass of the reservoir basin ended, there’s a group of up to fifty elephants. We know nearly all the adults. But two are standing off to a side, over what looks like a rock. They’re Blanche and Baretail. Through binoculars we see that this rock appears pale pink…In fact, Blanche has some wet marks behind her hind legs. It’s a newborn!
We’ve just missed the birth, and are anxious when we don’t see any movement. It must be exhausted from the ordeal of entering the world. The adults gingerly nudge it with their feet and to our delight, the calf struggles up within a few minutes. It’s a boy. His bloodshot eyes are huge, giving him an owlish appearance. Bashi and Baretail keep him carefully sandwiched between them as he totters around, his first impulse being to nurse. He’s so tiny he can barely reach up and has to do a funny little skip as he walks. He reaches toward whichever adult happens to be nearby – first he goes for Baretail, who has no milk herself but that doesn’t deter him.
The darkness will soon keep us from seeing anything. As we start the engine, a sub-adult male gets himself worked up and dashes toward the trio with a clumsy roar, seeming destined for an accident. But I need not worry; the new calf is safe between two solid gray walls of protection, who walk at the pace of a newborn.