Breakfast with the Baby Elephant

Baby Elephant RPZoo

Last week, the Reid Park Zoo held a fundraiser for the elephants, by inviting 100 members of the Zoological society to sign up for an early morning breakfast with our new baby elephant, at long last christened “Nandi” (nahn’-dee). As soon as the email appeared in my inbox, I clicked on the link to sign up — and a good thing. One of the other attendees told me the event was sold out in two hours.

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We arrived at 7:15 in the morning, well before the zoo opened, and after checking in at the gate were directed to the back of the property where the elephant habitat “Expedition Tanzania” was situated. There in the extensive educational area, they had our breakfast waiting for us: fresh fruit salad, orange juice and coffee, French toast with pieces of apple, scrambled eggs with cheese, hash brown potatoes with sweet potatoes, onions and bell peppers (I think) and ham and bacon. The serving dishes were black iron skillets set atop towers of bricks in the midst of which were the warming elements. It was all very nice and very tasty.

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As we finished up eating, the keepers came out to tell us about the elephant project. Our zoo is one of only five in the nation to support a breeding herd of African elephants, making the arrival of a new baby a rare event. They also shared stories of little Nandi — of her birth and how easy it all was, how quickly she was on her feet — within fifteen minutes, I believe they said.  How in the days after her birth they struggled just to get her out of the barn…

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Baby elephants don’t see well and tend to follow the biggest thing around them. So Nandi would start out following her mama in the barn, Semba would walk through the doorway… and Nandi would end up in the corner. They’d walk Semba back through the doorway into the barn area, and try again. With the same results. Semba would walk through the doorway and Nandi would end up in the corner. This went on for 45 minutes before the little one finally made it out through the door!

Thankfully she’s not having that problem any longer…

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Another funny story involved one of Nandi’s brothers, the former baby, Sundzu, now three years old.  Semba has three offspring, all by the same father: Punga, a seven-year-old male, Sundzu, and little Nandi, at the time only a few weeks old. There is also another adult female in the herd named Lugile. She has been fascinated with Nandi from the start and is very motherly toward her, so the keepers have taken to calling her “Auntie Lugile.”


Sundzu, Mom, Nandi (click to enlarge)

So they’d already introduced Sundzu and Nandi some days before this incident, and he’d been very nice, very gentle, and the keepers were feeling good about it all. But on this particular day, Sundzu was standing beside Nandi in the yard, Mom and Auntie nearby, but not paying attention to the kids. The keeper said Sundzu very clearly looked to the right where mom was busy stripping leaves from a stick, her back to the little ones. Then he very clearly looked to the left over at Auntie Lugile, who  was also occupied with her own pursuits, and seeing he was in the clear,  just like the three-year-old brother that he was, he smacked Nandi with his trunk and knocked her clean over!

Neither of the adults noticed him that time, though of course they came to see why Nandi was on the ground crying. Sundzu, of course, had no idea.   He got away with it so well, he naturally, tried it  again on another day… only that time he was caught and Mom chased him around the yard in discipline for some time!

Another cool thing we got to see is a daily ritual that occurs with all the elephants when the big bull elephant Mabu, (he weighs 12,000 lbs) joins the rest of the herd in the yard. All of them line up and walk over to greet him as he enters:

Punga, Sundzu, Nandi and Mom, Semba

Punga, Sundzu, Nandi & Mom en route to greet Mabu (click to enlarge)

As they all come together, they pass by him in a line and touch him with their trunks, as he in turn runs his trunk over each of them.

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Mabu greeting Semba and Nandi (click to enlarge)

I think Mabu is just awesome. He is so big! What amazes me is how gentle they can be with the baby and how aware of her they are, despite their rather shocking size differential.

Anyway, it was a wonderful morning. I stayed well after most of the other people left, and took something like 287 pictures!


2 thoughts on “Breakfast with the Baby Elephant

  1. Rebecca LuElla Miller

    I’m enjoying this series of posts and the pictures. The year I spent in Africa, we had the privilege of visiting Tsavo National Park in Kenya, where the elephant was king. This was years ago before poachers went after them in earnest. The pictures we were able to get! Mine, unfortunately, were with a little Instamatic camera on slides!

    But here’s my question. Do you know why the zoo keeps Mabu separate from the rest of the herd for any portion of time? From the little bit I saw, the bull elephants were very much in charge, so it’s not a surprise to me that the others line up to greet him. He’s the leader and the dad. I’d think they have missed him.


    1. Karen Hancock Post author

      What a trip that must have been, Becky! Wow, that would be sooo cool! I do not know absolutely why they keep Mabu separate — I know it’s not an all time thing because in the past when I’ve been there, he’s been out with the rest. My “semi-educated” guess is, they let the younger ones out for maybe an hour first so they can have first crack at the yard, then bring Dad in. Or perhaps it was just that the day of the breakfast was special for us — the other adult female was not out, either, only Semba and her three offspring. We were there to see Nandi, and the keepers had placed all sorts of goodies (hay, beet pulp, some sorts of pellets, special imported tree branches with all sorts of tasty green leaves on them) around the yard, often strategically located so the elephants — particularly Nandi — would be close to the visitors rather than clear off across the yard. I think they do this anyway, but as I said, they made a particular effort for the special event. I’ll be going back there in a couple days so it’ll be interesting to see if the entire herd is out there together. If any of the keepers are around, I’ll try to ask about it…

      On the males in general, I was reading about African elephants online just last night, and the article said that once they reach puberty around 14 or 15 they are driven off by the females and either join other displaced males to form their own bachelor herds or roam solitarily. They come back to the females when the latter are in estrus for breeding purposes — though usually only the dominant bulls get that privilege… So I don’t know how all that translates into the management of a breeding herd in captivity. I do know that Mabu and Semba mated right there in the yard, in full view of the visitors (for two days off and on) giving lots of little children an unexpected crash course in the birds and the bees… That was another of the funny stories the keepers told us.

      UPDATE: I talked to one of the keepers last week and she agreed that the bulls are driven out and hang together in the wild, but that here at the zoo they are keeping Mabu with the herd and he’s doing fine. They make sure the matriarch, Semba has her space, (not sure how exactly they do that; maybe just by the spaces and the way they’re divided up) but the keeper also said she can pretty much hold her own with Mabu if she has to. Still, overall he’s the biggest, so the others let him have whatever of the tree branches, sticks, food, space, etc, that he wants… and so far it’s working


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