Enormous and powerful as adults, elephants are much more vulnerable as calves. This dramatic incident in the Addo Elephant National Park shows that baby ellies sometimes need all the help they can get. Pictures by Katharina Hilgers

Elephants are highly social and members often look out for each other, but even in this caring environment things can go awry. That was the case when a helpless elephant calf fell into a steep waterhole at Hapoor Dam in Addo Elephant National Park.

The heart-stopping event was captured by Katharina Hilgers, a German tourist visiting the park in January this year. Along with her husband Bernd, Katharina has visited many of South Africa’s national parks and reserves, but Addo is almost always on the itinerary.

“We simply love watching the elephants interacting with each other. Their social behaviour is very much like humans’,” Katharina says. “On that particular morning, my husband was not feeling well and I was alone in the car. As usual, I headed to Hapoor Dam, where we’d seen plenty of elephants on previous days. One herd after the other was approaching the waterhole. I suddenly noticed a baby elephant among the older ones. It was so small and vulnerable.”

“The calf’s ears were so thin you could see the sun shining through them. It was obviously very young – maybe even born the previous night. While it was standing in the midst of the herd surrounded by bigger elephants, an elephant on the outside of the group started pushing towards the waterhole.”

Before Katharina could blink, the baby ellie was nowhere to be seen. “At first I didn’t realise it had fallen into the waterhole. From my viewpoint I could see only the edge of the waterhole, but not the water itself. Then I noticed loud trumpeting and jostling between two older elephants. I think it was the mother and the elephant that had started the push. It was almost like an accusation, as if the mother was saying: ‘Look what have you done!’

When an inexperienced elephant calf falls into a waterhole, who will come to its rescue? Images by Katharina Hilgers When an inexperienced elephant calf falls into a waterhole, who will come to its rescue?

“It became clear what had happened – the baby had fallen into the waterhole. I drove the car about 20 metres to the left in order to get a better view. And there was the baby in the water, unable to get out.

“What happened next was startling. The elephant I took to be the mother was more interested in her quarrel with the apparent culprit than coming to the baby’s rescue. Their altercation went on for roughly 20 minutes before the mother finally paid attention to the baby – now in grave trouble.

“The mother seemed inexperienced – she led the baby to a corner of the waterhole where the walls were quite steep. For quite some time she desperately tried to help the baby, but made no progress. She tried to push some mud from the edge into the waterhole in order to flatten the walls, but without success. Most of the time, she was alone with the baby, the herd had moved on.

“It was frustrating to watch these futile efforts, but the little calf had no intention of going down without a fight. Finally, help came from another source. A safari jeep from Gorah Elephant Camp notified the SANParks rangers. I expected that the situation would eventually sort itself out, and decided to leave. Big mistake as I subsequently missed the actual rescue operation. I only later learnt from the video [below] how the calf was successfully rescued.”

According to Fayroush Ludick, SANParks Regional Communications Manager, the rangers drove up to the edge of the waterhole and two rangers jumped into the water. “Their first try to pull the elephant out was unsuccessful. The second went better as more people had come to help. Once the calf was out, the next challenge was to reunite the calf with its mother.” Because the other elephants had moved off to Spekboom [Tented Camp], the rangers decided to load the calf onto the bakkie to return it to the herd.

“When I eventually returned to the waterhole a few hours later, the rangers had already rescued the baby,” Katharina says. “The pick-up truck with the rangers drove past me to take the calf to be reunited with its mother. We all had huge smiles on our faces.”

Video courtesy of Herald Live