Last week, an elephant named Soutine was crossing a river in Kenya with her 3-week-old calf when the worst happened – the newborn baby lost his balance and was swept downstream by the raging water.
But the protective mother would not let anything happen to her son. In a video recorded by Matt Brierley, a photographer working with Save the Elephants, Soutine jumps into the river after her baby.
She jumps a few steps across the water before she can catch her calf with her outstretched trunk. But her baby continued to struggle – the constant current pulled him away from his mother and he seemed to have trouble keeping his trunk above the water to breathe.
Eventually, Soutine managed to push her baby between her legs, which protected him from being pulled away. Then she trudged across the riverbed, carefully guiding her baby to the bank.
While the video is emotional, the clip isn’t just about a mother elephant saving her baby – it also shows the sad effects of elephant poaching. Chagall, Soutine’s mother, was likely killed by poachers for her tusks, and Soutine struggled to raise her first calf without her help and guidance.
When Chagall disappeared in 2012, Soutine was only about ten years old, and she and her sister had to learn how to fend for themselves.
David Daballen, Save the Elephant’s head of operations, said: ‘We have never found her body, nor have many of the elephants gone missing outside the National Reserve in northern Kenya. “The chances of Chagall being poached were very high given that she disappeared at the height of the poaching crisis, and almost three-quarters of the dead elephants we found at this point were killed for their tusks.”
Daballen added: “We immediately knew something was wrong when we saw Chagall’s motherless calves. “Despite searching, we never found Chagall.”
As orphans, Soutine and her sister live on the fringes of the herd, which makes life very difficult for them.
“When an elephant is killed, especially an older female, it is not necessarily just one baby elephant that suffers,” says Daballen. “Her death can affect an entire family – baby elephants are left as orphans, inexperienced females suffer without the knowledge and experience passed on to them, and Their calves are also affected.”
When Soutine became a mother, she continued to struggle. She also remains at the edge of her flock. In fact, Daballen believes Soutine was trying to rejoin her herd as she tried to cross the river with her newborn baby.
Daballen said: “The most heartbreaking thing is watching a young mother struggle to raise her young without any help. “As an orphan, Soutine had no guidance or support from older women or her mother and had to go through this enormous learning curve alone.”
“When poachers remove older females from their herd – who have all the experience and knowledge they normally pass down through generations – the younger females often suffer the consequences.”, added Daballen. “Soutine and her baby are prime examples.”
Even without Chagall, Soutine is proving to be a capable and very caring mother – and the video shows that Soutine will do whatever it takes to protect her calf.
Towards the end of the video, Soutine and her baby emerge safely from the river, and they walk side by side along the shore. The calf then snuggles up to its mother and begins to nurse.