As the camera panned across an elephant herd, the photographer focused on a calf. Even from a distance, it was obvious the little one’s trunk was missing. The footage sent a ripple of concern through animal lovers and experts alike, sparking debate over the stricken pachyderm’s ultimate fate.
Africa is known for its exotic wildlife, so naturally it’s a popular destination among safari-seeking visitors. However, some parts of the continent offer rich hunting opportunities, so it also appeals to big game enthusiasts and illegal poachers alike. As a result, conservation is essential to keeping threatened species alive.
And that’s where game reserves such as Kruger National Park (KNP) in northeastern South Africa come in. Within game reserve boundaries, hunting native animals is either controlled or forbidden entirely. To police this, KNP uses drones and park rangers in the fight against poaching.
Rhinoceros and elephants are particularly at risk because some of their body parts fetch a high price on the black market. Specifically, rhino horns and elephant tusks are high-value products to poachers. The tragic part is that these wonderful creatures’ numbers are dwindling as a result.
Take elephants for instance; they’re so important to Africa that experts think of them as a keystone species. That means the animals have a huge impact on the local environment – indeed their presence is vital to the well-being of other species in the ecosystem. Quite apart from that, elephants are fascinating creatures with a close family structure.
They’re intelligent beasts, too, with highly developed brains that are capable of processing a wide range of emotions. Furthermore, they can use tools, show evidence of self-awareness and seem to care deeply for their young. Elephants even look after other herd member’s calves.
Additionally, elephants are unselfish animals. In this regard they differ from other species that tend to ignore the more vulnerable individuals among their social group. Elephants commonly go out of their way to help weak or wounded members of the herd. Perhaps this explains the recent footage of an injured baby elephant.
On July 1, 2018, some visitors to the KNP came across an upsetting sight. They saw a baby elephant minus its trunk. One of them managed to film the afflicted calf and passed the footage to other park guides in the vicinity, hoping that they may be able to assist the poor pachyderm.
The sorrowful sight of an elephant missing its vital appendage is tragic, but how did it happen? The truth is that no one really knows. Several people – including the cameraman himself – have floated theories, yet without firm facts it’s all conjecture.
The photographer spoke to Newsflare about his suspicions regarding the missing proboscis. “Crocodiles grabbing baby elephants by their trunks while drinking water have been recorded in Kruger before,” he said. “And this was the most likely reason for this baby elephant losing its crucially important body part.”
An attack by a predator is definitely possible, National Geographic explorer and elephant advocate, Joyce Poole, confirmed. On the other hand, she disagrees that it’s the most probable reason for the missing appendage. Poole explained that the nature of a crocodile attack means any resulting wounds are likely to look somewhat ragged. The stub of the trunk in this case, however, appears relatively smooth.
When a crocodile strikes, it holds its prey in its mouth and spins around in a “death roll.” The resulting injuries are often rough and messy, unlike the elephant calf’s trunk stump. Additionally, an attack from any other wild predator, such as a lion or leopard, would probably be just as brutal.
So if it wasn’t a predator that took the baby elephant’s trunk, then what was it? Colorado State University’s elephant specialist, George Wittemyer, believes he has the answer. On September 7, 2018, he told National Geographic how he suspected human involvement.
To be more exact, Wittemyer indicated poaching snares as a likely culprit for the calf’s lost trunk. “Legs caught in snares tend to have the snare [still embedded in] the leg,” he explained. But trunks don’t contain a bone to limit further damage.
“Trunks that are caught in snares tend to be severed,” Wittemyer revealed. Poole added that, although a trunk-less calf seems like an unusual sight, it happens far more often than it should. “It’s pretty common in areas where there is snaring going on,” she stated.
Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique is one such area. In that park, says Poole, “There are quite a few elephants missing the ends of their trunks. And some even half their trunks.” Regarding this, Poole admitted that this particular truncated trunk is the most extreme she can remember seeing.
Sometimes, the snares aren’t even meant for elephants; the animals actually set the traps off accidentally. So what does the future hold for a calf without its trunk? Well, that depends on who you ask, since expert opinion is divided.
The man who shot the footage said the animal would likely perish without its proboscis. “An individual can simply not survive without its trunk,” he told Newsflare. “Elephants use their trunks to feed, drink water and smell. Unfortunately, the future for this poor little one looked very bleak.”
Wittemyer agreed the calf’s survival is unlikely, but according to Poole there remains a glimmer of hope. “It will obviously have a harder time than other elephants,” she told National Geographic. “But it may be being helped by members of the family. Their behavior is so adaptable, so flexible.”
And Poole had more good news. “It looks like that wound has healed,” she said. “So it’s had it for a while and is in very good condition. The calf is not thin, so it is getting enough nutrition somewhere.” Perhaps the herd’s altruism and the calf’s intelligence will help it survive after all.