Awaiting Baby Sahm’s Arrival
by Lisa Barrett
No Breeding, No Buying
At about this time last year, I, along with the rest of the Think Elephants International (TEI) research team, was anxiously awaiting the arrival of a new “family” member. Elephant births are cause for huge excitement at the camp for two reasons. First, female Asian elephants only have four to five calves in their lifetime, and they spend a lot of time taking care of each one. For example, elephants have the longest gestation period of land mammals (18-24 months), and moms provide milk for each baby until they are three to five years old! Second, breeding is not encouraged at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), and so babies were not common. Instead of increasing the number of elephants in captivity, the foundation seeks to provide the rescued elephants with nourishment, enrichment, and care for the remainder of their lives. GTAEF also prides itself on discouraging the illegal elephant trade by ethically employing each elephant’s mahout, or caretaker, instead of buying the elephant from its owner. If GTAEF were to buy elephants, mahouts may be inclined to save that large sum of money and take an elephant out of the wild (for free), thereby perpetuating the illegal wildlife trade. However, Boonjan, the soon-to-be-mother, arrived to GTAEF already pregnant.
Waiting and Waiting
Not only was Boonjan pregnant when I arrived in Thailand, but she was pregnant with her fifth calf. Interestingly, one of Boonjan’s other offspring (Somjai, 22-years-old) also lives in the elephant camp. As a new elephant researcher, I was ecstatic that I would get to see a baby elephant. And that made the wait so much longer! Gradually, Boonjan got larger and larger in size, until she finally looked like she had swallowed a kayak. We all waited. And waited…for the next several months. It seemed like forever!
Preparations were made by GTAEF for the baby. A nursery area was built, Boonjan was on maternity leave (she longer participated in guest activities), and she was kept by herself away from any vehicular noise or prodding guests. During this seemingly everlasting period of waiting, we learned that Boonjan had four sons throughout her life. Speculations began about whether the newborn would be male, too!
Boonjan gave birth to Denla, nicknamed Sahm (“three” in Thai, since he was born on March 3rd), and the research assistants found out soon after. We hurried over to see the baby (while making sure we gave Boonjan and her mahout plenty of space). Sure enough, it was a boy! I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry when I finally saw the miniature elephant. Gae, the vet assistant assured us that Sahm was healthy and told us that he weighed at the higher end of the weight range for calves, about 90 kg. She also said that Boonjan did not have a difficult time giving birth (and by number five, that’s what we would expect!).
Interestingly, the mahouts had several traditions about elephant births. First, a soup was made from the placenta for all of the mahouts to taste. Then, necklaces with money were placed around Sahm’s neck as a sort of donation for the mahout (who must now take care of two elephants).
After the birth, the research team and I did a lot of behavioral observations of Sahm. We knew that would have to learn how to eat and use his trunk, a fusion and extension of the upper lip and nose, by observing his mother. Even so, it was still wildly entertaining to watch him (accidentally?) step on his trunk, or use it to floppily pick up blades of grass. When he was feeling playful, he would run around his mom and his ears would flap back and forth. He made funny snorting sounds when he slept, tired out from playing and drinking Boonjan’s milk. If he ever stumbled and fell, his mother would rush over to him and place her trunk on him to reassure him. Boonjan made parental care look easy. She knew exactly what to do when Sahm wanted to feed; she stepped forward so he had easier access to her. As Sahm got older, he began playing with balls, water, and anything else he could get his trunk into!
At the same time, Boonjan and Sahm’s mahout wanted Sahm to learn how to be an elephant in captivity. He began training Sahm to learn his name, and he even placed a rope around Sahm’s ankle to get him used to the idea of eventually getting chained (which I will address in another blog about captive elephant management).
For the cutest video you’ve ever seen of a sleepy baby elephant, click here.