by DJ, USW, and SdS (Photos by DJ &UWERP)
The female orphaned elephant calf found in Ethimale, Southern Sri Lanka rescued and brought to Elephant Transit Home (ETH), Udawalawa was later named Ethimali. After several years of rehabilitation, she was released to Uda Walawe National Park in March 2004, when she was about 4 years old, with another 10 rehabilitated juveniles.
Some young females at the ETH show an array of maternal or allomothering characters from an early age, despite being orphans themselves. They seem to select calves out of new arrivals and try to be as attentive to them as possible. She frequently checks whether her orphan is alright and will be the first to respond if the orphan screams or is attacked by another calf. She keeps continuous company for the orphan and with time, it starts to follow her most of the day. When the orphan seeks comfort she allows it to suck on her – in the absence of real milk, even the tip of an ear will do!
Ethimali was a caring allomother from her ETH days. Soon after the release, in June 2004 she started associating with a wild female having a male calf about one year old. Though the adult female – whom we called Mahee – frequently changed her association with other wild females and groups in Uda Walawe, the trio was continuously seen together for about two years. Mahee looked as if she accepted Ethimali to her family. She never showed hostility toward her ‘adopted’ calf. She allowed Ethimali to hang around with her own calf. Ethimali was attentive to Mahee’s calf and could often be seen playing with it.
Ethimali was quite a fixture in Uda Walawe for a while, she was easily identifiable from little tears in her ears and the distinctive belt around her neck, which all released calves initially wore. Being very accustomed to humans, perhaps even fond of people, she had an unfortunate (and rather unsettling!) tendency to seek the attention of tourists. We worried that this would get her into trouble, along with the ETH program. Eventually the belt dropped off and Ethimali started to blend in better but she still tended to stand out in her behavior.
In 2012, a BBC film crew had an interesting experience in Uda Walawe. They said that Ethimali was seen snatching a new born calf and she showed aggression towards the mother of the calf in order to keep the calf separated from its mother. The crew was not able to follow Ethimali or the other female in the next few days so we don’t really know what happened afterwards. But we do know that Ethimali didn’t have any calves herself for a long time, and it certainly looked like she would have enjoyed having one of her own.
Do sub-adult female elephants snatch others’ calves like primates sometimes do? Could Ethimali’s behaviour above be an extreme case of allomothering in elephants? There’s no hard evidence to support this. Alternatively, could Ethimali’s changing sub-adult hormones and her extreme excitement seeing a new calf in the group lead her to exaggerate her otherwise healthy allo-mothering behaviours?
Happily for her, Ethimali had her first calf in January 2016. That would make her twelve years old. She has therefore graduated from allomother to true mother! They say home is where the heart is. Perhaps now, after more than ten years since her release, Ethimali is truly home. This is another demonstration of the successful survival and reintroduction of orphan calves to the wild by the Elephant Transit Home program. We continue to observe them in the wild. Uda Walawe National Park supports many wild and rehabilitated elephants, they thrive despite numerous ecological challenges. And with them lies hope for the future.