Playtime with Pachyderms

Two Young Elephant Calves at San Diego Zoo Safari Park are Thriving with their Herd

Two young elephant calves—a two-week-old female yet to be named and a nine-week-old male named Zuli—interacted with their keepers, their mothers and the rest of their herd at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park early this morning (Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018). Keepers are keeping a watchful eye on their development, and say they are doing very well.

Umzula-zuli, or Zuli for short, was born Aug. 12 to mother Ndulamitsi (pronounced en-DOO-lah-mit-see), better known as Ndula. “Zuli’s name means ‘wanderer,’ and it is so apropos for him,” stated Mindy Albright, lead elephant keeper, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “While he is still nursing, he is venturing farther away from mom each day, exploring every inch of his habitat. He is starting to eat solid foods—and he loves to manipulate his trunk, grabbing branches and trying to lift them over his head or put them in his mouth. Zuli does not walk, he charges from one place to another, and he is having so much fun! He is always running, playing with sticks, climbing on things, hitting things with his trunk, touching and mouthing items. He is full of energy.”

The baby girl, born Sept. 26 to mother Umngani (pronounced OOM-gah-nee), is nursing more frequently, so she stays closer to mom. “At two weeks old, her eyesight is improving and her safety distance away from mom is increasing,” Albright said. “She is very curious, and she is very vocal—trumpeting or roaring at everything. She even roars at the other females when they interrupt her nursing bouts. She also is starting to explore, but the younger females keep her corralled and close to her mother.”

As part of their daily routine, keepers weigh the babies on a scale each morning. Zuli, born at 270 pounds, is now 409 pounds. The female calf, born at 281 pounds, weighed in at 316 pounds this morning. The young elephants will continue to nurse for at least two to four years, gaining 2 to 4 pounds a day.

The two calves have met, but they do not interact much at this stage, Albright said. “While the two have interacted a small amount, Zuli is more skilled and confident in venturing from mom, while the baby girl is still very young and stays closer to her mother most of the day. They are so much fun to watch, as everything is novel to them and a new adventure. As the two get older, I’m sure we will be seeing a lot of interaction between the two.”

The calves have plenty of “aunties,” who help the moms out by alloparenting—a system of group parenting, in which individuals other than the parents act in a parental role. If the babies venture too far from their mothers, or if they trumpet, one or more aunties will come running to ensure that the calves are safe and guide them back to their mothers’ sides. While the young males in the herd are curious about the calves, they tend to stay at a distance, as they like to roughhouse and the female elephants do not tolerate this playful behavior around the newborns.

The Safari Park is now home to 14 elephants—four adults and 10 youngsters. The adults were rescued in 2003 from the Kingdom of Swaziland, where they had faced being culled. A lack of space and long periods of drought had created unsuitable habitat for a large elephant population in the small southern African country. At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, elephant studies are underway on nutrition, daily walking distance, growth and development, and bioacoustic communication. Since 2004, San Diego Zoo Global has contributed $30,000 yearly to Swaziland’s Big Game Parks to fund programs like anti-poaching patrols, improve infrastructure and purchase additional acreage for the Big Game Parks.

The new calves and their herd may be seen at the Safari Park’s elephant habitat and on the Safari Park’s Elephant Cam. During the entire month of October, Kids Free presented by Mission Fed gives free admission to children ages 11 and younger, to both the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo. During Kids Free, the Safari Park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and the Zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, except during HalGLOWeen festivities—October 26, 27 and 28—when the Zoo will close at 8 p.m. All children younger than 15 must be accompanied by a paid adult during their visit to the Safari Park or Zoo.