In September 2017, Chamilandu was isolated and mounted by a wild Kafue bull elephant whilst in oestrus (reproductively receptive). Chamma was raised at the Kafue Release Facility from a vulnerable young age, when she arrived as a traumatised orphan, and we believe that she continues to view the boma as a place of safety and comfort. So, when the large bull demonstrated his interest in her, her reaction was to run towards the place that had once offered her protection. The bull guarded her from other males for three days, keeping her close to the boma, which enabled our researchers to observe and record the interactions.
From that moment on, Chamma was monitored for any changes in condition and behaviour that would signify a 22-month pregnancy. She has been free-roaming in the Park since 2015, so researchers have mostly been keeping track of her remotely, using GPS satellite technology. However, most days Chamilandu ‘checks in’ with the orphan herd during their daily walks, giving the Keepers a chance to see her up close and note any physical changes. From February 2018, Chamilandu’s mammary glands started to swell in size and after six months, the team notice a change in behaviour as she began returning to the boma during lunchtime with the younger orphaned elephants. She was looking tired and observed napping in the sun on a number of occasions, similarly to pregnant women, who feel unusually tired during the first trimester of pregnancy. To our wonder and excitement, in May 2018, Chamilandu approached Keeper Maison, who has been her carer since her arrival in 2007, and allowed him to touch her stomach, so that he could feel and hear the baby moving around inside. An incredibly touching moment for us all.
Despite this excitement, we were very aware of the threats Chamma would be facing in delivering her baby. The risks of an unsuccessful pregnancy are much higher for younger elephants, and as Chamilandu has been raised in an orphaned herd throughout her life, surrounded predominately by male elephants, she does not have older, experienced females to support her at this critical time. In the wild, female elephants become very active in the role of ‘allomother’ providing midwife support during labour, assisting the baby and mother to suckle, and most significantly, offering physical protection of the new young calf against predators. It is very unlikely that the age-mate bulls who she has released with would have provided adequate protection for her calf in the wild. During her 24 month pregnancy, we observed no evidence of oestrus - a significant sign that she was expecting. About one year into her pregnancy it started to become visually evident (to those who know her) that Chamma was carrying a calf, and her stomach grew steadily in size until August 2019. At this point, she was 23 months into her pregnancy; data suggests elephant gestation is usually around 22 months, but can last up to 25 months in some cases.
Chamilandu had us all on tenterhooks with anticipation but we received reassurance from experts in the field that all signs seemed good. From mid July we noticed Chamilandu spending much more time closer to camp during the evenings, again giving the impression that she feels safer here. Given that there are lions roaring around the area most nights she did not want to take any chances. On 9th September 2019 Chamilandu, Batoka and Tafika all returned to the elephant boma with the other orphans at lunchtime. This was highly unusual and she had not been inside for over four months so the team were immediately on high alert. Chamma seemed tired and leaned against the boma structure to rest for a while. When she moved away she looked uncomfortable and was clearly not relaxed. She urinated and a number of the orphans became highly interested in the scent as she displayed nervous behaviours. It was beginning to become very evident that something was about to happen.
Within minutes a bulge appeared under her tail and it became obvious she was in labour! Over a the next few minutes she was seen straining, laying down and quickly standing up again and with a very prominent white sack pushing out from between her legs. The baby filled sac fell to the floor and she turned around to look at her newborn baby! Amazingly from the moment she evidenced labour until the baby was born was less than 10 minutes!
The rest of the orphan herd were crowded around the mother and her newborn with high interest, smelling him, ears out on high alert and all streaming fluid from their temporal glands, which is a sign of emotional excitement. This truly was a momentous occasion for the whole herd as well as the team! The GRI-Elephant Orphanage Project was established to give orphaned elephants, the tragic victims of the ivory trade and human conflict, a second chance for life. The process from rescue through to eventual release involves huge amounts of support and dedication to ensure that the orphans are nutritionally supported, reach a physical size to defend themselves and understand elephant society in order to live in harmony with wild elephants. The birth of Chamilandu’s baby evidences a significant milestone in this incredible and emotional journey to restore Zambia’s elephants back into the wild where they truly belong.
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Acknowledgments We would like to sincerely thank all the experts who supported us with their knowledge and experience in preparing for all eventualities surrounding Chamma’s pregnancy and birthing. David Squarre, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Donald Neiffer and Bryan Amaral, Smithsonian Institution Clive Barwick, Colchester Zoo Dr Kristen Pullen and Dr Cerian Tatchley, British Association of Zoos and Aquariums Natalie Boyd, Howletts Zoo Gerry Cleighton, Dublin Zoo Dr Debbie Young, African Elephant Research Unit Mike McClure, Maryland Zoo