Baby Elephant Takes A Ride in A Helicopter

January 1, 2017 - When rescuers found a malnourished elephant calf in the wild, they transported it using unconventional means—by helicopter ride. When grown elephants are relocated by helicopter, they usually have to be airlifted outside the chopper. But moving this premature baby called for special measures. The starving calf was too small to nurse from its mother. It was taken to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, where it was fed via tubes and monitored overnight. After about seven hours it was able to stand on its own. The healthy calf, called Panya, is still recovering.

The Mara Elephant Project, a Kenya-based conservation program, steps in when elephants need help. Normally, it saves baby elephants when their parents have been poached for their ivory tusks and left abandoned. But when a calf was wasting away in November without influence from humans, the group stepped in … with a helicopter.

In the video above, a pair of conservation staffers working with the elephant project emerge from the forest in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. One carries an undersized, undernourished pachyderm in his arms toward an awaiting helicopter from the Karen Blixen Camp Ree Park Safari. With each step, the 100-pound elephant's limp trunk sways.

After loading the elephant onto a worker's lap, Mara Elephant Project CEO Marc Goss says the helicopter took off toward a research center within the park. The baby was later taken to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphanage in Nairobi, where she was put on a drip and monitored overnight. Seven hours passed before the calf was able to stand on her own, Goss says.

"Intervening with abandoned baby elephants is something we do on a regular basis," a Mara Elephant Project spokesperson says in a statement. "This was, however, the first time we've had a pachyderm passenger in our helicopter, [as] they are usually slightly too big for the trip."

It Takes A Tourist

Born prematurely, the undersized calf was too short to reach its mother's teat. Newborn African elephants normally weigh about 200 pounds and can stand 3 feet tall, but Goss says this baby weighed around 100 pounds. He says that her mother tried for hours to get the baby to stand up but, defeated, eventually abandoned her.

Tourists found the calf late one evening and notified conservation staffers, who worked to quickly relocate and nourish the baby.

After she was taken to the orphanage, Goss says veterinarians conducted tests on the calf to make sure she was healthy. They determined she was a female and named her Panya. Keepers placed blankets on the elephant to keep her warm and fed her milk from bottles propped up between their legs. An elephant calf will nurse with its mouth—as opposed to its trunk—behind its mothers' front legs for its first year of life. After that, it will taper off nursing and eat plants by the age of two or three.

Rob Brandford, the executive director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, did not release many details about Panya's current condition because the elephant is still in a critical care stage. The trust successfully rescued more than 20 orphan elephants in 2017, Brandford says, and the last rescue took place during the final week of December.

Brandford says all the organization's rehabilitated elephants are reintegrated back into the wild. In July, an elephant named Maktao was rescued at three months old. Information on Maktao's condition was not published until October.

All About Baby Elephants

After a 22-month gestation period—the longest of any mammal—a mother elephant and her baby form a practically unbreakable bond. Female elephants, called cows, normally give birth once every two to four years, and their babies depend on their mothers' milk for the first two years of life. When a female baby is born, it will normally stay with her mother for her whole life.

Grown adults can weigh anywhere from two-and-a-half to seven tons, and measure up to 13 feet. As generalist herbivores, elephants eat loads of roots, grasses, fruit, bulbs, and bark, and adults can consume 300 pounds of food in one day. Depending on how much water an elephant has ingested, it's not unusual for a pachyderm's weight to fluctuate 100 pounds over the course of a week.

Premature elephants normally don't make it in the world. In August, for example, the Pittsburgh Zoo decided to euthanize a premature baby elephant after she could not gain weight for months. The zoo tried to feed the calf through a tube and consulted with elephant experts before making the call.

Though details on Panya's condition are not public, the trust will continue to care for her in the time to come.

"Panya has a long way to go on her journey, as tiny elephants are exceptionally fragile and susceptible," Brandford tells National Geographic in an email. "Once she is through the first few critical months, we will be highlighting the efforts to which many people went to save this calf."

<p>An elephant in&nbsp;<a href="http://samburucouncil.com/reserves.htm">Samburu National Reserve</a>&nbsp;in Kenya stands tall among her herd.</p>

An elephant in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya stands tall among her herd.

Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection

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