Mother Nurture

Aswita is a female Sumatran elephant, who, on her own accord, took on the role of mothering an 18-month-old orphan named Bona. This is nature at its best, a beautiful, natural instinct to care for their own kind. But it’s not just Aswita’s intake of orphans of her own that had me amazed. One morning I woke to Aswita standing guard over an injured water buffalo calf.

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Bona calmly investigating the buffalo calf.

We woke up early to Bona’s familiar bellowing at around 5:30am. A sleep in by our regular standards! Bona came up to our cabin and we followed her up to the kitchen to give her 6 full 1.5 litre bottles of milk. She would have had more if we had let her. Her appetite these days is incredible. We will never tire of seeing her like this, even though she is boisterous and a lot more difficult to manage these days. She is really testing her boundaries right now. The terrible twos are alive and well.

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His last hours were not lonely.

While Bona was being fed we noticed that there was a baby water buffalo taking shelter in the grass beside Aswita. I had to look twice, as the calf shared the same colouring as Bona, and from a distance looked as if there were two elephant calves in the camp. As the morning fog lifted and the sun started coming out, the little calf continued to lay motionless. Aswita seemed to be standing guard over it where she seemed to have done so overnight. When I went down to have a look, it became clear that the buffalo was not in a good way. It was not able to stand and had wounds around its eye and under its tummy. One of our group had mentioned she had seen a wild pig around it this morning so we guessed it had been attacked and taken shelter beside Bona and Aswita during the night. It seems that Aswita is the universal foster mum for all animals. This was fascinating to watch unfold, though a seemingly sad fate for the little calf.

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A very different Bona on this morning.

My heart broke for the little buffalo. It was in significant pain and was dying. I sat with him for a couple of hours sobbing. I couldn’t help it. I talked softly to him and stroked his head wishing he would close his eyes and slip away very quickly. But unfortunately this was not the case. While I was sitting quietly with him noticeably upset, Bona and Aswita stood over me reaching their trunks out to him to have a look as if showing their concern. Their curiosity was amazing. There was no doubt Bona sensed my sadness. Yesterday she was really aggressive with me to a point where I only felt safe in the kitchen behind the gate and this morning while I sat there, nice and vulnerable, she just stood quietly beside me eventually laying her head on my shoulder in sympathy. 9 times out of 10 if I am sitting down anywhere near Bona I get sent flying but today was very different. She stood calmly and lovingly beside me. Completely different attitude all of a sudden, she really sensed what was going on. She kept reaching her trunk out to the calf checking out what was happening. I did have to laugh at one point, Bona was being so good and gentle, then slowly turned around and backed up to the buffalo, raised her back leg in the air and gave it a little but intentional kick (a new phase of Bona’s which had started a few days before). I reprimanded her but it was too funny. She was like a jealous kid. She was being so good before that and the little kick made me think of her like a mischievous child. Kicking is one of Bona’s favourite things at the moment.

There were no vets anywhere nearby so no one could come and put him out of his suffering. One of the many frustrations of being where we are. Unfortunately the buffalo had to suffer a long and drawn out death. A local villager came across the river (in his underpants) to see if he belonged to him but upon checking his ear tags realised it was not his and therefore not his responsibility. He swam back across the river (in his underpants) and we were at a loss for what to do. We ended up moving him into the shade as the sun was getting strong so he could at least be more comfortable. But sadly we just had to watch him die very slowly. All we could do was try our best to make him as comfortable as possible. When I touched his head he closed his eyes and I felt as if in some way he was comforted by it.

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Nelson, the gentle giant.

After a few hours Baroka, Nelson’s Mahout, asked if I would like to join him by the river to bathe Nelson. Nelson is my favourite elephant here, he’s a large male, an absolute gentle giant. There is something just incredible about being in the presence of this animal. He’s an old, wise soul. Baroka lets me ride him down to the river on my own, with nothing but my legs around his neck to hold on by. When we got to the river Nelson rolled over and wriggled his trunk around in the rapid of the water. It was like riding a mechanical surfboard the way he moved around so much lapping up every moment he had in the water. He’s such a beautiful soul, you can feel it radiate out of him when you can be this close to him. His presence alone instantly lifted my mood from the previous few hours. It was great to see Baroka again, he is one of the kindest of all of the Mahouts. He has a deep love for Nelson and I think it is very much reciprocated from Nelson. Baroka does not take a day off in fear that someone may mistreat his big boy. Love sitting on top of an elephant with Baroka and even though there is limited communication, we will still manage to understand one another and enjoy each other’s company. I had very much been looking forward to seeing him again.

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Bona with her beloved Aswita.

We made a few bottles of milk up for Bona at lunch time and went trekking into the jungle to find her hanging out with Aswita. As per usual, the second Bona heard the word “susu” (meaning milk) she came running out of the foliage nearly bowling us over to guzzle down her bottles. We hung out with them for a little while and trekked back home to check on our buffalo calf. Sadly, but thankfully, the calf had passed away while we were out in the jungle. We all felt a sigh of relief that the suffering had ended. But we also felt terrible that it had suffered all day long. Because he battled so hard, trying to soldier on, we named him the little ‘Buffalo Soldier’.

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Water buffalo in the camp.

Not long after an adult buffalo came wandering through the camp looking for something, we wondered if she had come looking for the baby. She was calling out for something, and there was no reply.

I felt satisfied knowing that Aswita had kept the calf safe and sheltered in it’s last hours. It was amazing to think how instinctive it was for Aswita to take him under her wing, as she had done so to little orphaned Bona. She is a natural born mother. A beautiful gentle giant. I am so in love with this beautiful lady and the love she has given to so many less fortunate animals. All you need is love, in the animal world too .

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