In 2013, precious baby elephant Zhuang Zhuang was born at the Shendiaoshan wildlife reserve in Rong-cheng, China and was immediately rejected by his mother who tried to stamp him to death.
Zookeepers at the time were convinced it was just an accident, so they removed Zhuang Zhuang, treated his wounds and reintroduced him to his mother only to see him attacked viciously by her again.
Calves are more often rejected in captivity than in the wild, because the mother lacks the support that is part of elephant natural behavior.
Yet again, zookeepers were forced to intervene, saving his life but the emotional trauma on Zhuang Zhuang was evident as he wept uncontrollably for five hours after the incident.
“The calf was very upset and he was crying for five hours before he could be consoled,” a zoo employee told Metro UK. “He couldn’t bear to be parted from his mother and it was his mother who was trying to kill him.”
Which begs the question: what on earth happened? Why did this mother elephant reject her newborn so vehemently?
“As elephants are so tactile and sociable, a mother rejecting their newborn appears very unusual,” the Daily Mail states. “Typically, an expecting mother will seek out another female elephant in her herd who will help her when she gives birth and offer her protection.” So, what happened?
Julia S Ferdinand, an elephant advocate, and Andrea Worthington, who holds a Ph.D. in Zoology and Ecology, shone some light on the subject, pointing to the element of captivity for a new elephant mother:
Ferdinand writes, “In the wild in an elephant herd, all the members of the herd grow up caring for all of the younger calves. They effectively learn to parent with the support of their aunts, sisters and the matriarch.”
“When a calf is born, the mother is surrounded by her female relatives, but she will choose a special ‘auntie’ to help her give birth. The auntie and the other members of the herd assist the mother, but they also pay special attention to the calf. If this is a first-time mother, she may be scared and due to the pain involved in the birth, it is possible the inexperienced mother will attack or hurt the baby, intentionally or unintentionally. The aunties will take the new calf away from the mother allowing her to recover from the pain and slowly be introduced to her new calf. In the wild, it is highly unlikely that a mother would reject her calf as the aunties provide support and assistance to help her accept the baby. Even severely ill or physically injured calves are seldom rejected unless the mother sees there is no hope in saving it.”
“In captivity, female elephants do not have the support of the aunties, instead, humans take the place to provide care. The mother may not grow up learning how to care for younger [elephants] and may be very inexperienced. The human attendants will take the calf away from her as soon as it’s born to allow the mother time to decompress and get over the pain and to assess the health of the baby, similar to when a human gives birth in the hospital. Though there are cases where inexperienced human handlers have not taken the calf away and the mother elephant is so frightened by the pain and sight of an unfamiliar baby that she will try to harm the calf or reject it. Calves are more often rejected in captivity than in the wild, because the mother lacks the support that is part of elephant natural behavior, Ferdinand surmises”
Simply put, “living in captivity outside of traditional family groups can interfere with animals’ protective instincts towards their young.” And it would appear that is exactly what might have happened to Zhuang Zhuang.
Luckily for Zhuang Zhuang, he had a trusted team of people at Shendiaoshan wildlife reserve who were able to bring him the love and care he needed to survive. It is said that he is now thriving.