Over the years, Abu Camp's elephant programme has sensibly and delicately reintroduced eight African elephants into the Okavango Delta. In 2003, our first elephant cow, Nandipa was introduced to the wild. July 2010 marked a second landmark occasion when the owners of Abu Camp made the decision that another two elephants were ready for life in the wild. Gika and her 8 year old calf, Naya, were given the opportunity to live a naturally wild life roaming the Okavango. Five days after their reintroduction, the mother and calf joined up with their old friend of the Abu Boma – Nandipa – who by now had two calves of her own: her first born, a bull we call Ntongeni and her second, a female born in 2009.
On the 6th of April, driving between Abu and Seba camps, we came across our favourite elephant herd, which we have dubbed “The Wild Abu Herd” as a point of reference. The first indication we had of their presence was an “elephant game” played by Ntongeni, who takes delight in hiding behind a bush, mock charging and bellowing at any unsuspecting vehicle that he hears coming down the road. We hadn’t seen the herd close to camp for quite a while, so we were thrilled to be meeting them again. Next, we spotted Gika and her daughter, Naya, and straight away noticed a change in Gika’s appearance. She is looking unusually round, her mammary glands are enlarged and she appears decidedly pregnant to the untrained eye. Our focus turned on trying to capture her condition on camera, which was not easy, considering they were foraging in quite dense palm thicket. Nevertheless, we managed to get a few stolen shots of a very shy Gika, and Naya who was continually trying to get into the picture, as well.
We then radioed through to the Elephant Handlers to enquire whether they had seen the herd recently. To our surprise they reported that they had come across the herd the previous day, accompanied by a very young calf, which they assumed was about a week old. They asked us to continue observing the herd to see if we could spot the calf to try and establish who this new arrival may belong to. It started dawning on us that the presence of a new calf could easily explain Gika’s altered appearance – she might possibly have given birth recently! Then, Nandipa appeared from the thicket followed by her second born and to our utter amazement, we had our first glance of the week old calf. But who was the mother?
With Nandipa’s arrival, Gika immediately moved away from us and towards Nandipa. To our great surprise, the new born left Nandipa’s side and approached Gika. “This is it,” we thought, proof that this might very well be Gika’s first calf in the wild. The calf crawled under Gika’s stomach, while she rumbled gently to the little one, caressing and guiding it between her legs with her trunk. But, just as we expected the calf to start suckling, it exited from between Gika’s legs and moved back towards Nandipa. We inched in slowly towards Nandipa, who appeared to not be concerned with our proximity, and we could finally get a good view of her sporting very visibly swollen, wet mammaries. The new member of the herd, wasted no time in latching on and getting its fair share of elephant milk. No doubt now, this is Nandipa’s third wild-born calf.
The arrival of Nandipa’s third calf marks a milestone for Abu Camp’s elephant programme, which is supervised by Dr Mike Chase, Wild Horizons and Abu Camp’s 10 dedicated elephant handlers. The birth of this calf has now swelled the herd’s number to six. Hopefully, if our suspicion is correct and Gika produces a second calf, the wild Abu herd will soon increase to seven.
They say that an elephant never forgets. Nandipa and five other young elephants, including Gika, arrived in Botswana in 1990 after Randall Moore, the previous owner of Abu Camp, acquired them in an auction, which was the result of an elephant culling operation in the Kruger National Park. The bond that formed between Nandipa and Gika, after the traumatic event they experienced as calves, has obviously cemented their friendship for life. Their natural reconciliation, after being apart for nine years, has been a marvel to observe. Also, it continually fascinates us to see the wild Abu herd continue to visit the area of the camp, to greet their friends in the Abu herd.
Not only are we continually gratified that the bond between these two gentle giants brought them back together, but we are just as fascinated by the bond that still remains between them and the remaining individuals in the Abu herd, to the extent that every now and again, Abu Junior has taken to spending nights out with the wild Abu herd, as well. But he knows “which side his bread is buttered on” and he soon runs back to mom, Shireni. At nearly seven years old, Abu is too young to leave the Abu herd but he quite enjoys experiencing a night out, as long as he is with good friends to protect him and it doesn’t interfere with the pampering he receives by the rest of the Abu herd.
Now, we wait in eager anticipation for the birth of Gika’s next calf!
Photographs: Mike Marchington