Here are some answers to questions posed by our elephant fans about the African elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park!
Calves, in general, start eating solid food around their fourth month. By seven months they’re eating it all, including the pellets that we use to train them, which become their favorite item.
Macembe has to have good elephant manners when around any other animal if Mom Swazi isn’t next to him, which is frequently. He usually climbs onto Emanti whenever they get together, but rarely is Emanti far away from his mom, Umoya, so his dominance is short-lived. He loves his wrestling matches with Lutsandvo though.
When we do our “Elephant Rush” (it’s at 11:30 a.m. nowadays) you might see us holding an animal back to go last, but not always. What we like to do is get the animals that have been in the barns out first before we let the animals that were in the yards out. If Mabu is in the barns while we clean the main yard, he’s typically the last to come out; he doesn’t need first crack at the goodies because he gets to most of it anyway. If we have time to train before the Rush, we may bring out some elephants earlier and train them and then let the majority (at least seven of them) out as the “Rush;” this tends to look more like an elephant “trickle.”
Do the elephants’ react to earthquakes? I don’t think the elephants know what an earthquake is, but I wouldn’t doubt that they could feel or hear it coming before we could. Forming their protective circle around their calves just seems like a logical thing they would do whenever they feel threatened or spooked. Our elephants have always maintained this natural behavior, which is really cool to observe. They do react to new construction noises and smells but quickly habituate or become desensitized to them. We want our elephants to get used to any and everything that’s out there, so we don’t tell Park guests to “be quiet” or to not fly the Balloon Safari, etc. On a side note, we have seen that if the elephants are initially spooked by a new noise or smell, they will go into their protective circle.
Ndlulamitsi’s right curved tusk broke off a couple of weeks ago. We noticed a fresh scrape on ‘Musi’s derriere the same day, so we think she busted it off while telling her son to get lost. Not to worry; it’ll grow back, and the pulp cavity wasn’t exposed. And ‘Musi is still a momma’s boy.
Elephants do show affection or offer a greeting by massaging each other’s head with their trunk. Mabu does this with Umngani, Swazi, Litsemba, and Lungile a lot, and they all do it toward someone at some point. It does appear quite affectionate at times. When it’s male to male it seems as if it could also be a “sizing up” before wrestling ensues.
Impunga has been notorious for lying down across a dirt mound. Is it colic? We think he simply loves the feel of the cool dirt on his belly. Most of the other boys seem to love doing this as well. It’s only rarely that I’ve seen an adult lie down on their side and quickly get back up that looked like an adjustment for a possible colic situation. It’s not uncommon at all for elephants to lie down. When they want some deep sleep, they lie down. When they have a new calf, the moms sleep standing up, even though they sure look like they want to lie down. But instincts say to stay on guard and to wake up the calves every half hour or so to nurse.
Does Mabu have a favorite offspring? I can definitely say that it’s not Impunga or Khosi. I would say that Kami is his favorite, and currently Macembe hangs out with him more than anyone else. Both Macembe and Lutsandvo also try to nurse off of him. Mabu doesn’t really initiate anything “fatherly,” but he sure does tolerate them all, and we consider ourselves fortunate to have such a great bull. (He’s my favorite elephant, by the way.)
For Don, the earliest recorded weight we have on Impunga was when he was three days old and he weighed 98 kilograms or about 216 pounds. As far as your theory on the mothers’ ventral edema (sagging stomach), even our vets don’t know the cause or the cure. For now I would say you’ve made an interesting observation. Only time and a bigger sampling will tell if you’re on to something.
Dianna from Ohio would like it if we could do a blog on a “Day in the Life of an Elephant Keeper.” Boy, would that be a write up! It would take a massive amount of time, and I’d probably want to post some set-up blogs such as how we train, why we train, and how and why we manage them the way we do. It would be quite an undertaking.
What are we going to do with all the males? For now they’re staying put. If Msholo proves to be viable or perhaps needs to have Mabu leave to become viable, then Mabu, a well-represented bull here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, would probably need to be moved to an AZA-accredited zoo where he can continue to take part in an African elephant conservation program. With the nearly completed yard connection, we have the possibility of having a yard just for the males, if need be. What a bunch of yahoos that would be! Male calves in the wild usually get kicked out from the protection of Mom or the herd around 8 to 10 years of age, so we have a lot of time to plan. The age and size differences between Mabu and ‘Musi are so great that we don’t see a problem between those two at present. The same goes for Msholo and ‘Musi, but we don’t know what Msholo will be like toward ‘Musi. As his sire was a wild bull from Swaziland, ‘Musi is a very important breeding possibility. Some day we hope to build a new African elephant facility designed to house different elephant social groups somewhere out along the Journey into Africa tour path. I would love to keep all of them, but that’s because I’m attached to them.
Curtis Lehman is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Manners.