Loss to Elephant Family

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Umoya with her son, Emanti, last year.

Today the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and its African elephant herd are mourning the death of the spirited Umoya. As the mother of two calves, Phakamile and Emanti, she will be missed not only by these two but by the entire herd and the keepers who have worked so closely with her since she arrived at the Park in 2003.

Moya, as we called her, was 21 years old. She was born in Kruger National Park and was one of the original seven African elephants rescued from Swaziland from being culled because of an elephant overpopulation. She could often be seen walking backward in the exhibit, making her quick to identify among the females. Moya enjoyed training sessions with the keepers and was a very quick learner. Most importantly, she was a good mother.

Phakamile, or Kami for short, was born in 2007. Moya immediately cared for her first calf, keeping her close and making sure she grew healthy and strong. In 2010, Moya gave birth to Emanti, a male who is now 18 months old and just at the weaning stage. He will surely miss the caring reach of his mother’s trunk and her protective instincts, but he will have his big sister by his side. Kami has always been a good sister and even a good cousin, reaching out to all the younger calves.

Because the elephants live a natural herd structure, we believe their social interactions will keep Emanti and Kami safe and cared for. Their “aunties”—the other adult females—have always been known to care for each other’s calves, even encircling the calves when they think there is a problem. Some calves have even been seen nursing from their lactating aunts. Emanti should no longer need his mother’s milk. He has been eating solids for quite some time, and if this morning was any indication, he should progress well among the social unit that is the Park’s African elephant herd.

As they do in the wild, the herd was offered an opportunity to mourn Moya. The elephants came to see Moya after she died—some touched her with their trunks and others simply stood by her. By her side were Kami and Emanti, but once the others began to walk away, the two youngsters followed their aunts to an adjoining yard.

Animal care staff discovered Umoya lying down with injuries when they arrived at the Safari Park early Thursday morning. The injuries indicated there might have been an aggressive interaction with another elephant. We thank you in advance for all your well wishes and know that you, too, will feel this loss.

Yadira Galindo is a senior public relations specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Valentine’s Day, Mammoth Style.