You “Herd” Right

Pint-sized pachyderms play well with others

What could be better than a wobbly, wrinkly, ear-flapping, trunk-tripping baby elephant? Two, of course! The Safari Park has been blessed with a darling duo of healthy calves—a boy and a girl—the first born here in six years.

BY Karyl Carmignani

Photography by Ken Bohn

It’s a boy! It’s a girl! The newest elephant calves at the Park are a sight to behold.

The excitement is palpable when the herd saunters out in the morning, with two “mini mes” trotting between feet and trunks and tusks to begin their day of exploration. Umzula-zuli, or Zuli for short, the little tank of a calf born on World Elephant Day on August 12, 2018, lives up to his name, which means “wanderer.” At birth he tipped the scale at more than 270 pounds, making him the heftiest elephant calf ever born at the Safari Park—that is, until his half-sister, Mkhaya, born 6 weeks later, topped him at 281 pounds. (Newborns typically weigh 200 to 268 pounds.) Elephant mothers provide a supply of rich milk upon request, allowing calves to pack on 2 to 4 pounds per day, so these two tots have a weighty future together! Despite their bulk at birth, the calves still look like toys next to their herd mates.

Weight in pounds of Msholo, adult male

Special Deliveries

Zuli’s mother, Ndulamitsi, known as Ndula, has her maternal skills down pat; this is the third son she has delivered without a hitch. Following elephant birth protocol at the Park, mother and son were on a five-week post-birth watch “to make sure Zuli’s nursing on both sides and at adequate intervals, both are urinating and defecating, sleeping okay, and interacting with the herd,” explained Lauren Coates, a senior keeper who has worked with the elephants for the past six years. When Zuli was introduced to the expectant herd, “in the heightened excitement, they were all dripping from their temporal glands on the side of the face when they met him,” said Lauren. Despite their massive size and the tangle of curious trunks and feet, they were—and are—tender and gentle with both of the new pint-sized pachyderms.

Baby elephants like Zuli (pictured) are cared for by their mother as well as a cadre of other females in the herd.

“Zuli is proving to be curious and rambunctious, and fearlessly plays with other elephants. Ndula makes big, strong boys,” Lauren said with a chuckle. Like most youngsters, after an energetic play bout, he conks out, sometimes in the shade of his mom—or in her food. At night, when Ndula lays down on her side, Zuli snuggles up under her chin.

When 28-year-old Umngani (pronounced OOM-gah-nee) gave birth on September 26 at 11:20 p.m., the birth-watch cameras revealed her daughter entering the world smoothly after about 30 minutes of labor. “Knowing Umngani’s birth window was between September 12 and October 18, we were placing her in one area of the yard at night, separate from the rest of the herd but close by,” said Curtis Lehman, animal care supervisor at the Safari Park. Elephant gestation is about 22 months, the longest of any mammal, but Umngani’s previous 3 calves arrived late, so keepers were delighted to find the healthy newborn that morning.

Zuli is an energetic little fellow who plays hard and sleeps hard…and charms everyone all the while!

Once the youngster appeared to be thriving and well-bonded to her mother, she was introduced to Umngani’s other three offspring: 7-year-old male Inhlonipho, called Neepo for short; 9-year-old male Ingadze, or Gadze for short, and ever-eager auntie, 12-year-old Khosi. Soon, the calf met the rest of the herd in a swaying throng of whisking tails, waving ears, exuberant trumpeting, and caressing trunks: the “new girl in town” was welcomed with open, inquisitive fanfare, elephant style.

Weight in pounds of Ndula, adult female

Happy Birth Days

Elephants are highly intelligent, social, cooperative animals that live in herds ruled by a mature, experienced matriarch. Females remain in their natal group for life; males head out (or get kicked out) at around 10 years of age to roam solo or hang out with other males. This matriarchal society lends itself to successful rearing of socially savvy offspring.

At the Safari Park, both new moms are experienced, and there are three excited aunties—juvenile females Khosi, Kami, and Qinisa—ready to babysit. While watching over the little ones, they even present their mammary glands (located between their front legs), even though they do not have milk. With the calves in their midst, “they are all learning what it takes to be a good mom,” said Lauren.

The juvenile males most often frolic with boys their own size. Six-ton Msholo, the huge but quiet bull in the herd, plays with the younger males, even bending down on his knees to appear less imposing; if Zuli comes barreling at him in youthful exuberance, Msholo gently shoos the tiny fellow away. The females don’t allow roughhousing near the calves, and sidle up and surround the little ones when necessary.

Little Mkhaya, called Kaia for short, stayed close to her mother initially, but now bravely frolics farther away.

Zuli loves water and slurps it from puddles and plays with the hose provided by keepers. That waggling appendage on his face, which contains about 40,000 muscles, takes time and skill to use effectively, and Zuli appears quite pleased with himself when he grabs a stick or piece of browse with his trunk, holding it high for all to see. Mkhaya is also a little spitfire, and began trumpeting in the first week. “When we weigh her, she barrels in trumpeting, and when we’re finished, she dashes out trumpeting,” Lauren said. The youngsters will be eating solid food at around six months of age, at which point staff can start training them through positive reinforcement in husbandry behaviors, like touching their trunk to a target and learning their names. “Right now, it’s all fun and games, and building trust.” The husbandry skills pay off throughout an elephant’s life, as keepers can keep a close eye on their feet, teeth, and overall health. Many animals even accept vaccinations without being anesthetized.

Weight in pounds of Mkhaya, 3-month-old calf

Milk Mysteries

Elephant mothers encourage their calves to nurse almost immediately after they’re born. It’s a stretch, as the newborn has to reach its mouth up to the nipple and get its trunk out of the way to drink. A calf consumes about 2 gallons of milk each day, gaining between 14 and 28 pounds a week during its early development. After about six months, the calf will eat leaves and grass too, but continue to nurse until it is two to four years old.

Milk samples are collected from the lactating elephants by the keepers and analyzed by our scientists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Each mammalian species produces its own concoction of fats, proteins, amino acids, and other nutrients ideally suited for its babies. Even Asian and African elephants have vastly different milk! The goal is to develop an improved “recipe” for milk substitutes used with hand-reared calves in zoos, as well as at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya. Calves arrive at this sanctuary stressed and compromised, so it’s vital that they get as much nutrition as possible from their bottle feedings. SDZG is pleased to partner with this community-based conservation effort to rescue orphaned elephants and reunite them with a herd as soon as possible.

Safari Park and Beyond

Visitors to the Safari Park (and viewers on the Elephant Cam) will see a thriving herd of 14 elephants: 4 adults and 10 youngsters. The adults were rescued in 2003 from the Kingdom of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). They faced being culled, due to lack of habitat from an extended drought, and an unsustainable number of elephants in too small an area. SDZG is committed to bringing species back from the brink of extinction—and rescuing these pachyderms has helped invigorate the gene pool in zoos, and shed light on wild populations. At the Zoo and the Safari Park, elephant studies are underway on nutrition, daily walking distance, growth and development, and bioacoustic communication. Since 2004, SDZG has contributed $30,000 annually to the Kingdom of eSwatini’s Big Game Parks, to fund programs like anti-poaching patrols, infrastructure improvements, and the purchase of additional acreage.

African elephants Loxodonta africana are the largest land mammal on the planet, and humans pose the biggest threat to their survival, through poaching and habitat loss. But humans can also find solutions and change behaviors that imperil these majestic giants. It is up to all of us to do the right thing. Zuli and Mkhaya are counting on us.