Her four-month-old elephant body, stamped with networks of rivulets, could tell a story in itself. Already her life has all the ingredients of a gripping narrative - not one marked by ease or blithe optimism, but like the best of them, it has struggle and adversity and, we believe, ultimate triumph.
Naledi’s story begs to be told from the beginning. Her arrival into the Abu herd wasn’t a quiet local affair but one anticipated the world over. An international film crew had arrived weeks prior to capture her birth, spending day and night with her mother, Kitimetsi (Kiti). In the early morning hours in late November, Naledi was born -- all 110 kg of her. It was only fitting she be named after the Setswana word for star.
Throughout December we watched as she slipped seamlessly into the patchwork herd, stumbling and playing and struggling to keep pace. If ever she fell, Lorato and Paseka were there to lurch forward and set her right. She was the much doted-upon new baby.
Today, the trajectory of Naledi’s story has shifted. It is no longer the untroubled birth of a calf and her charmed life amongst the Abu herd. Kiti died on January 11 this year, when her intestines suddenly herniated into her reproductive tract, rupturing it. A rare condition with a poor prognosis. A vet confirmed the condition was terminal and Kiti was put down.
Her death was a blow to the herd, their handlers (who had spent countless hours with her over the years) and the wider Abu community who had known Kiti to be one of the most gentle and perceptive elephants. But the greatest burden would undoubtedly fall on Kiti’s new calf, still so vulnerable. The handlers and Abu researchers had hoped one of the other adult females, Shireni, would adopt her. Naledi attempted to suckle from her for a few days but Warona, Shireni’s two-year-old calf, soon became restless that she wasn’t receiving enough milk herself and pushed Naledi away. When Shireni saw Warona’s reaction, she did the same.
Naledi then attempted to suckle from the herd’s matriarch, Cathy, who had famously nursed Paseka after she was orphaned. But this time Cathy’s body couldn’t keep up -- a combination of her age and the fact that she’d never borne a calf of her own. It just wasn’t enough milk for Naledi’s demanding needs. She grew dangerously weak and by week two, had lost an estimated 30 kg.
The only alternative would be to bottle-feed Naledi but she was reluctant to take to it, preferring to suckle the other mature females of the herd. Head researcher, Dr Mike Chase decided it was too risky to keep Naledi with the herd -- separating her would be socially devastating but would hopefully make her more amenable to a bottle. She was placed under watch and care of handlers 24 hours a day where she could receive sufficient nourishment.
The saving grace in all this is Naledi’s birthright, which affords her the care of a dedicated team. Had she been born to a wild herd and felt this kind of loss, her chances of survival would hinge upon another lactating female adopting her. She’s being looked after by carers who feed her a two-litre bottle of formula whenever she wants it (between 20 and 30 litres a day) and vigilantly monitor her. Guests and doting staff members visit twice a day -- needless to say, she loves the attention.
Four months after the tragedy, Naledi is now in stable health. Panning out of our own narrow view -- beyond the grief following the loss of a good friend and the tenuous predicament of her calf -- what we are doing now is an absurd privilege. Here we are, touching, playing with and falling in love with a precocious baby elephant.