The Mystery Orphan, Part 1

By Ashoka Ranjeewa

– January 28 2011, 3:00 PM –

The newborn calf stayed close to a subadult female, who was very attentive to her.

It was a rainy afternoon. I met Fat-tail with a group at the crest of the Teak waterhole. Amidst the heavy downpour, they were grazing and moving towards Old Mau-Ara Road which is located on the North-east side of the park. When we neared them, Fat-tail came over and stood right next to the jeep.  She was watching us, but it was a friendly look. Fat-tail and Right-hole were part of one of the largest social units we had documented in the past five years – the Rs, named after the oldest female among them, Ragged Ear.  This unit had quite a few adults in it, but the split up during wet seasons.  Fat-tail and Right-hole were a pair that were nearly always seen together and that day was no exception, they were both together along with the calves.

Fat-tail with her juvenile calf.

After few minutes I saw a newborn female calf who was being nursed by a subadult female. Lacking milk, the teenager was unable to actually feed calf. The calf was very tiny, still having the red skin and eyes characteristic of newborns, though covered by lots of hair. It was very active and always moved under the belly of the subadult, though she was definitely too young to be the mother of the calf. I wondered who the mother was. Neither Right-hole nor Fat-tail could be the mother – Right-hole had her own small calf with her.  Fat-tail had had a newborn calf, but sadly, it had died a few months ago though she still had her older calf. She couldn’t give birth to a new calf yet since its takes 22 moths for a pregnancy so the interval between calves is usually at least four to five years. I got  very curious about who the newborn could belong to.


Right-hole, so named because of a tiny hole in her right ear.

I started collecting data on Fat-tail & Right-hole alternatively. The group was moving quite slowly as they grazed, with the calf also following along,  trying to suckle unsuccessfully from the subadult female. Two other juveniles were also taking turns nursing the little tot alongside this teen-aged guardian, though of course, they too could provide no real nourishment. The calf gave several calls we call ‘bark-rumbles,’ which is a sound both Asian and African elephant calves seem to produce when they want milk. But there was no response from anywhere. The calf’s attempts to suckle were getting more and more  frequent and desperate.  Several years ago we had witnessed a similar situation with a slightly older infant, and despite the best efforts of its babysitters the orphan didn’t survive.  If this little one didn’t get milk soon its future didn’t look promising.

Forty minutes later, I saw Rani appearing through some bushes about 80m away from the group. Rani was also regularly with the Rs. As she was slowly making her way towards the group I thought that perhaps Rani would be the mother of calf. Rani didn’t have a new calf recently and her last calf was about 3 years old.

I remembered another incident some time ago.  In 2009 while a subadult numbered [802] was babysitting a newborn that belonged to a female named Tanya, the calf gave several bark-rumbles, indicating it wanted to nurse.  [802] quickly brought the the calf to Tanya, bypassing all the other adult females in the group. This suggested that individuals knew which who each calf belonged to, a skill that had also previously been demonstrated by primates like baboons.  So this time I was very curious as to whether Rani would come to the calf, or whether this young female would take the calf to Rani.

The story doesn’t end there – to be continued next week…
To read Part 2 CLICK HERE!

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