Rehabilitated elephants can be good moms!

By Deepani Jayantha & Sameera Weerathunga

[208] and calf

[208] with her newborn calf in June

In August 2015, one of our frequently sighted females in Uda Walawe named Indika was seen suckling two calves of different ages on either sides of her. The younger male calf Indika was nursing was about three months old and merely skin and bones. He was obviously malnourished and weak. She already had a rounded and bulky belly suggesting another calf was on her way. This unusual behaviour of the elephants intrigued us so we dug deeper into our field notes.

It turned out he was not her calf – he had been born to [208] in June, 2015 and was the first calf we had witnessed her to have produced during our study. A few days after the birth she lost her interest in the new-born and may have stopped lactating. The calf’s body condition started gradually declining so our team informed the veterinary staff at the Elephant Transit Home.

An elephant drive took place in Handapanagala (Southern Sri Lanka) in 1995 as a measure of mitigating human-elephant conflict in the area. Elephant life disturbed by the drive resulted in a few deaths of adult animals. One female calf became orphaned following the death of her mother and was rescued by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The orphan was named Sandamali and she was among the first arrivals of the Elephant Transit Home (orphan elephant rehabilitation centre) in Uda Walawe. From the beginning, Sandamali showed a high affinity for younger calves, letting them play with her and even suck on her ears! She was rehabilitated and released to Uda Walawe national park with a few other orphans in 1998 and when she was about five years old, she was part of the first released batch of the Transit Home.

Not knowing this, we named her Indika when we first met her in 2005, which would have made her twelve years old. Interestingly, the first day we met her she was also in the company of [208]. She was seen roaming with her transit-home-mates like Kithmali, Mattali and Evelyn. By the time Indika (AKA Sandamali) gave birth to her first male calf in 2008 we knew of true background and observed with interest. She displayed very maternal behaviour and eventually her second calf was born in 2013, a female this time.

By August, [208]'s calf was looking terribly thin.

By August, [208]’s calf was looking terribly thin.

Indika with [c208]

Somehow, [208] and the calf came to keep company with Indika, who tried to look after it.

The Transit Home staff think [208] and her group too are rehabilitated and released elephants at Uda Walawe, however we don’t think so as [209] was already an adult in 2005 when we first identified her. Over the years Indika and [208] grew apart, rarely being seen together. So it was quite a nice surprise when [208]’s weak calf was first seen with Indika’s group in early August 2015. She was equally attentive to her own female calf (now about 26 months old) and the abandoned weak male calf (about three months old). This suggests that Indika was still bonded with her old friend, [208] despite the infrequent contact.

Adult female elephants are known to be very tolerant towards calves and juveniles of other female members of their group. Female elephant society centres on the next generation and females show a lot of care toward calves, especially young ones. However, because nursing calves is nutritionally demanding, it is rare to see anyone nurse a calf that is not her own (though we have seen this before in Uda Walawe), even if closely related. Indika showed height of this altruism by suckling [208]’s weak calf along with her own – an animal whom she was not even related to!

As the calf was getting weaker, the Transit Home staff captured him in late August. Besides his general debility for malnutrition, he had a deep infected wound at the base of his tail. Insufficient colostrum feeding as a neonate probably led him to immunosuppression and subsequent easy exposure to pathogens. Despite the treatment and veterinary support for two weeks, the calf sadly died in mid-September.

We haven’t confirmed whether Indika is pregnant again. She is just one of more than 100 rehabilitated elephants in Uda Walawe National Park released from the Elephant Transit Home. Of those that we have observed, we know these individuals have given birth to at least five calves so far. Most of the rehabilitated and released elephants in Uda Walawe live in small groups frequently consisting of other released animals, varying degree of interactions with wild groups. The objectives of the transit home objectives are to support the conservation of the endangered species and improve their welfare standards. Indika’s strong maternal qualities suggest these attributes must have an important genetic component, since she did not have much opportunity to observe and learn these behaviors as an orphan. Her descendants will hopefully emulate her, enriching the existing elephant gene pool in Uda Walawe.

4 thoughts on “Rehabilitated elephants can be good moms!

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