By Lizzie Webber
My favourite elephant has a deceptive disguise. By day, covered in mud, a pretty-looking elephant with a hairless tail, she goes (regrettably) by the name of Baretail – be careful what you nickname an elephant when you first meet, for it will stick! But by night, or after a good bath, Bare-tail’s gorgeous depigmentation is revealed, turning her into a super hero – a masked crusader!
And that she is. Yesterday, the beautiful Baretail came to the rescue of the endangered Asian elephant. With extremely rough estimates of only 38,000 to 52,000 wild Asian elephants left globally, Bare-tail went through a 22 month pregnancy to give birth to a teeny little boy. The B-unit, and the elephant population, has grown by one!
The baby is only hours old when we sight the mother-calf pair (along with Batik, Bashi, Blanche and their juveniles) the wee fella is clearly yet to follow in his mother’s footsteps in the beauty department. Thankfully however, his miniature legs managed to follow Bare-tail’s footsteps in a more literal sense, stopping every so often for a quick lie down.
In my four weeks here in Uda Walawe I’ve delighted in my focal studies on the calves and their trunkie pals. I’m proud that my proficiency at IDing the adult females is improving and on the rare occasion I can ID a calf before I ID its mother! However, when there’s a big group with multiple calves running all over the place, I rely quite heavily on videoing the focal calf for my study so I can go over its behaviour again later. This is an extremely handy tool to have when your subject calf is far away, playing with its body double, of a similar age. When the two wrestling calves disappear behind a shrub or two and re-emerge, the video footage can help support my hunch that they played a trick on me and switched places for fun!
When bath time came around, a group slowly made their way through long hide-and-seek grasses to the water hole. I was intrigued to watch the patterns of behaviour from three calves in the group, all under six months old. As the group left the grass to cross the path to the water three teeny calves hustled along en masse, eager to get to the water. But as each of them entered the water and began splashing around, it was clear that each calf had separated from its younger playmates to different parts of the water and each was now accompanied by an adult, also relishing in their time playing in the water.
Although my true “elevision” has yet to kick in, I feel smug in my jeep-surfing progress. That is, until Ashoka turns around from the driving seat in the jeep’s cab to yell at me to “hold on Lizzie!” as we go down, almost vertically, to get across a stream bed. Back in the jeep, I try NOT to stiffen up while clinging on for dear life (the trick to a bruise-free field day is to bend the knees slightly and to RELAX the arms – tense your arms and you’re guaranteed a fair whack against the jeep’s bars). Meanwhile, Tharanga turns to me simultaneously in mid-decent, effortlessly holding on with one hand, while casually offering me a packet of crackers with his other. Clearly he has much more faith in my newly-honed skills that Ashoka does!! I’d like to add in here that we no longer take this route as it’s too steep and it’s not worth damaging the jeep for such a shortcut.
As wonderful as it is seeing Bare-tail’s new calf, I’m apprehensive for him as he is just so tiny. I wonder if he’s premature. Newborn Asian elephants have a slightly pink tinge to their skin, and the whites of their eyes are usually pinky-red, but this newborn’s eyes were even redder. He also seems a little weaker and didn’t seem to be trying to nurse at any point when we were watching them. The next few days and years will be crucial for him. Fingers crossed he turns into a brave little soldier, that the Bs keep him safe, and that he grows into his over-sized wrinkly grey p-jamas soon!