Baby Elephants Have Sharp Soccer Skills

Kicking things comes naturally to them, says elephant expert Joyce Poole. World Cup prospects? Probably not.

Like most Africans, Kenyans are soccer mad. Kids improvise balls out of plastic bags tied up with string. Any piece of dirt can serve as a pitch.

A new video shot at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage, in Tsavo National Park, shows that World Cup fever is not confined to two-legged creatures.

As elephant caretakers in Wellington boots practice keepie-uppie, the baby elephants move the ball about with their trunks, pass it with their front feet, and tackle each other. One even performs a step-over, dribbling the ball between its legs, a la Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Two elephant orphans, seen here in April 2010, play with a caregiver at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust nursery in Nairobi, Kenya.

So what does this tell us about elephant behavior? Is this intentional play? Or just the random booting of a passing ball?

"Elephants naturally kick things about," says Joyce Poole, codirector of Elephant Voices. "When they're out in the bush, they'll pick things up, like sticks or rocks, and kick things. They do a lot with their feet and trunks. One time we were out recording and photographing, and my husband had used a seat cushion to rest the camera on. It fell out of the window, and this elephant found it and proceeded to throw it in the air and kick it with his back legs. They particularly like to use their back feet. It's called play kick-back."

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Taru and Roan Carr-Hartley live at the Nairobi nursery and enjoy playing soccer with orphaned elephants.

So will there be a Kenyan elephant team in the next World Cup? Can they master the art of heading or the bicycle kick? Probably not.

They also need to read up on the rules of play. As one of the babies tries to get the ball, it head-butts another, like Zinedine Zidane, the legendary French player sent off for doing this in the 2006 World Cup.

Another little elephant rolls around on the ground, Italian-style, with its trunk wrapped around the ball.