We know elephants are capable of impressive teamwork when one of their own is in trouble, but not all herds cope well in a crisis. When a young calf had a mishap in the mud recently at a waterhole in South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve, the rest of its herd launched an equally muddled rescue mission.

The youngster's ordeal was caught on camera by the general manager of a nearby game lodge, Nico Verster. "We were watching a breeding herd of elephants drinking at the waterhole when the small calf toppled over and landed in the water," he recalls.

Having watched other elephant herds successfully pull off similar rescues, Verster was struck by this group's apparent lack of cohesion and know-how. "The mother seemed inexperienced and immediately attempted to lift the baby out, holding him by his trunk, and once flipping him by his back leg. As she struggled, she became rather frantic, unable to get a proper hold."

Elephant Rescue 1 2016 04 07
Image: Rodney Steyn

With the mother elephant trying desperately to scoop her calf to safety, most of the other herd members stood by without coming to her aid. "They were very inexperienced in the situation and didn't really offer any help as breeding herds would normally do," he notes. 

Wildlife rehabilitator Karen Trendler, who has also witnessed similar scenarios, agrees that inexperience seems to blame here. "There is surprisingly little communication. The mother doesn’t give distress calls that would have alerted other females for assistance. This could be due to inexperience, age or position within herd hierarchy," she explains. 

With the herd adopting a back-and-forth strategy of retreat and hapless milling around, the calf's fate looked increasingly precarious. Struggling to free itself from the slippery mud, it became agitated and exhausted – and the ordeal clearly had an effect on the other elephants. "It's interesting to note the distress shown by the other calves – note their tails and heads are up, and their ears are forward," says Trendler. 

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Image: Rodney Steyn
Ellie Bump 2016 04 07
Image: Rodney Steyn

For Verster, watching events unfold from the sidelines was extremely difficult, but his experience told him not to interfere. "The hardest thing was watching the calf struggle and possibly face drowning. My immediate instinct was to get involved, but in these situations it's important not to intervene. This was an important lesson for both the herd and the young calf," he says.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Through what seems like sheer coincidence, the mother elephant and another herd member finally "bumped" the youngster up the bank during a prolonged and disorderly interaction at the edge of the waterhole. After floundering for so long, the baby managed to scramble up on shaky feet, much to everyone's relief.

"It was incredibly touching to watch that moment – and the sense of relief that the calf was safe was almost tangible," says Verster. 

Ellie Out 2016 04 07
Image: Rodney Steyn