One day last October, a mother elephant and her ten-month-old calf were seen playing together on the plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve when a passing tourist photographed the tranquil scene.
Twenty-four hours later, on October 22, the young calf was spotted again—this time standing over her mother’s poisoned carcass, seemingly reluctant to leave her side.
The young calf had her head down, and her trunk was draped across the mother’s back when Richard Roberts, from the Mara Elephant Project, arrived.
After examining the dead mother more closely, he found a poisoned spear wound in her cheek, indicating a fatal attack by ivory poachers.
The mother was still nursing the calf before the lethal, fast-acting poison stopped her heart, and now, as she lay motionless on the dry plains, the baby was left without a source of food.
When the herd slowly began to move away, the calf followed behind another lactating mother and her calf. The hungry orphan tried to suckle, but the mother gently pushed her away.
“An orphan will sometimes get taken in by another mother in a breeding herd,” said Angela Sheldrick, executive director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), an orphan-elephant rehabilitation facility based in Nairobi.
“But she will only share her milk in situations where it would not jeopardize the health of her own infants.”
It was obvious that the mother was denying the orphan milk. Deprived of sustenance, the young elephant would soon weaken in the heat of the day, fall behind the herd, and likely die on the plains.
The herd was moving toward the Tanzanian border, and if the baby elephant crossed it, a rescue mission would be impossible.