Yes, I know most animals’ babies are adorable, but you have to agree, the all-time world champions of oohs, aahs and puppy-eye-heart-melting swoons are baby elephants. What, with all that clumsy horsing about, tripping over their trunks and splashing into muddy puddles with wild abandon, who could oppose my argument? Combined with all the kissing, cuddling and hugging from adults in the herd, and of course, wrapping their little trunks around mom’s forelegs, they account for some of the best game viewing entertainment around..
We probably enjoy watching baby elephants so much because they remind us of human toddlers. What other animal enjoys playing in mud, chasing each other (and any other random animal who looks like it would enjoy being chased) and being curious about just about everything new, just to run back to mom when they feel tired or unsure as much as humans and elephants?
Baby elephants even suck their trunks to help them relax when they are not feeding. Just like human babies suck a thumb or a dummy.
Don’t harass the baby
Weighing as much as a Springbok tight-head prop at birth, baby elephants can sometimes get distressed by loud noise or the too close proximity of a vehicle and cry out as a result, which will alert bigger relatives to rush to baby’s defence. If your SUV is the cause of this distress, it would be wise to back away before mom resizes your Fortuner to a Yaris. True story. You’ve heard about Momma Bear? Momma Elephant will open a can of whoop-ass that is far more serious.
Respect the private space, keep a safe distance and you could easily enjoy hours of first-class amusement around a herd with babies.
Learning, smarts and brain size
All this mimicking, playing, entertaining of themselves and others and trying new things of course teaches baby elephants lessons about survival and social structure. Just like humans, rather than instinctual, elephants must learn as they grow up, and they have a very long period in their lives for learning, lasting for around ten years.
Elephants have the largest brains (around 300 billion neurons) of all land animals and the cerebral cortex (which enables cognitive processing / problem solving) has the greatest volume of all animals. As big as an international rugby prop at birth and probably smarter. ;)
One way to gauge intelligence is to compare brain size at birth to the fully developed adult brain. This indicates how much learning a species accumulates while young. The majority of mammals are born with a brain close to 90% of the adult weight, while humans are born with 28%, bottlenose dolphins with 42.5%, chimpanzees with 54%, and elephants with 35%.
This indicates that elephants have the highest amount of learning to undergo next to humans, and behaviour is taught throughout life. The cerebrum temporal lobes, which function as storage of memory, are much larger than those of a human. A memory like an elephant is not just a saying.
Other behaviour suggesting intelligence
Elephants manifest a wide variety of behaviours, including those associated with grief, learning, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and communication. Further, evidence suggests elephants may understand pointing (the ability to non-verbally communicate an object by extending a finger), can distinguish between languages, have a sense of humour (they play for their own and others’ entertainment) and enjoy art and music. This places them on at least par with dolphins and the big apes.
Bushveld Terrace, ellies and the central KNP
With the Bushveld Terrace Hotel on Kruger as your base, you are in the heartland of elephant country and virtually guaranteed an encounter with elephants on every single game drive, walk or bike ride. Most herds have babies or young ones. Especially in and around Sable Dam (see our blog of last month). Take your time, have the camera ready and enjoy the entertainment.
The top image of this blog was taken just a few kilometres from the hotel by Mariska Nortjé, the winner of our 2015 Amateur Photography competition.