Playful Pachyderm Pair at San Diego Zoo Safari Park Are Thriving

Two young elephant calves at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park enjoyed a high-spirited play session this morning (Nov. 12, 2018). While their mothers and the rest of their herd ate fresh browse and hay, the 3-month-old male calf Umzula-zuli (“Zuli,” for short) and the almost 2-month-old female calf Mkhaya (called “Kaia”) engaged in some friendly sparring, pushing, head-butting, climbing and tugging behavior.

“These young calves are so much fun to watch,” said Curtis Lehman, animal care supervisor, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “They are almost the same size, so they naturally gravitate to each other. The calves’ moms know they are in a safe environment, so they’re allowing them to roam the exhibit—knowing that if the calves stray too far or get too rough with each other, an “auntie” will intercede and make sure they are OK.” 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.

Zuli was born Aug. 12 to mother Ndulamitsi (pronounced en-DOO-lah-mit-see) and Kaia was born Sept. 26 to mother Umngani (pronounced OOM-gah-nee.) According to keepers, both calves are very active and curious. While both are still nursing, the calves like to mimic the older elephants in the herd, pushing around puzzle feeders and mouthing fresh browse. Keepers report Zuli especially loves to manipulate his trunk, grabbing branches and trying to lift them over his head or put them in his mouth. While Kaia is younger, she is starting to do everything Zuli does.

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 (now known as eSwatini), 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 eSwatini’s Big Game Parks to fund programs like anti-poaching patrols, improve infrastructure and purchase additional acreage for the Big Game Parks.

San Diego Zoo Global also collaborates with the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Africa, which operates a community-based elephant orphanage that cares for injured and orphaned elephants in the Namunyuk region of Kenya.

The recent births of these two elephants at the Safari Park provide an opportunity for animal care experts in San Diego and in Africa to share information about growth rates, nutrition and maternal care, to help improve animal care and conservation efforts in both countries.

The Reteti Elephant Sanctuary is a community-based wildlife conservation program in Kenya. Created as part of a community effort to care for and protect the elephants and other wildlife in the region, the sanctuary was established by the Northern Rangelands Trust and works with the Kenya Wildlife Service to manage the animals in its care.

The new calves and their herd may be seen at the Safari Park’s elephant habitat and on the Safari Park’s Elephant Cam.