One of the reasons why I, like many others, feel such a deep affection for elephants is that they have so many human-like qualities. Elephant behavior has been well researched, and it is clear they possess a level of emotional and social complexity not seen in other animals – love, compassion, sadness, grief, anger, and even self-awareness.
But if there is one defining characteristic that sets elephants apart from many other animals, it is their capacity for maintaining strong family bonds, particularly between mothers and their calves. In the elephant world, mothers are key to learning everything needed for a safe, long, loving, and satisfying life. Elephants bear only one baby at a time, and generally give birth to no more than six offspring during their lifetime – a reproduction pattern not unlike our own.
The gestation period of an elephant is almost two years – the longest of any mammal, and a calf will nurse for two to three years. That’s a long time, when you consider that many other animals are weaned and then leave their mothers in just a few weeks! Having nursed my own children, I am profoundly aware of the intense bond this simple act of nourishment creates between mothers and their young.
This past summer my own daughters and I had the chance to witness this amazing bond first hand during a visit to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in northern Thailand. One of the most respected elephant sanctuaries in the world, ENP is home to about three-dozen elephants (mostly females), and there were three energetic and absolutely adorable youngsters in the herd.
One of the calves, Navann, was about eight months old when we visited. He was as spry and cheeky as could be as he frolicked in the mud and wrestled with the other calves, testing the boundaries of his freedom (and his mother’s patience.) His mother, Sri Prae, along with the other females in the group, or “aunties”, doted on Navann constantly, surrounding him protectively as they roamed throughout the park, eating, playing, and finally washing off with a bath in the river.
Throughout our day, this friendly entourage – that also included the family group of a younger calf, Dok Mai – stuck together wherever they went and whatever they were doing. It reminded me of the mommy playgroups I joined in those early years of motherhood, when I most needed the support and friendship of other women.
Female elephants epitomize the magic of “sisterhood.” Unlike the more solitary males, they live their entire lives (up to 70 years in the wild!) together in these social groups consisting of several females, with one chosen to be the matriarch for her keen knowledge of the best feeding areas and skill in leading the herd.
During their early years, a calf follows her mother everywhere, learning invaluable survival lessons from her and the rest of the herd. Not unlike human females, when a calf is born, the mother’s comrades will come to congratulate her and put in friendly bids to be “aunties” to the calf.
And, if a baby elephant is orphaned, which sadly happens all too often by ivory poachers in Africa, other females will gladly jump in to assume maternal responsibilities. As in certain human cultures that place a high priority on extended family networks, life within an elephant herd proves that it really does “take a village” to raise the little ones.
My daughters and I were fortunate to witness this loving bond between female elephants and their playful bundles of joy. Elephants are a reminder to us that humans are not unique in their capacity for deep social connections. They also provide as good an example as any of what it means to be good mamma.
Happy Mothers’ Day to all the good mammas out there – human and non-human!