A scene seen only once in a thousand years: A mother elephant gives birth underwater, the whole herd surrounding her to protect her and the experienced birth attendant.

When it comes to elephant water births, it really does take a herd

It takes a whopping 22 months to make an elephant, so every new arrival is a momentous occasion. But this sighting in South Africa’s Kruger National Park was a delivery with a difference: it’s not every day you see an elephant water birth.

Image © Dan Streck

Caught on camera by photographer Dan Streck, the encounter is actually a few years old, but the images have been shared widely just recently after being posted by South African National Parks (SANParks) on its Facebook page.

The female elephant had picked the waters of the Olifants River, a popular gathering place for thirsty herds, for the big delivery – and we do mean big: after the longest-known gestation period of any mammal (up to 680 days!), newborns emerge weighing around 230 pounds (105 kilograms).

Image © Dan Streck

“The first image shows the amniotic sac, before delivery,” explains Streck. “Afterwards, the elephants gathered in a phalanx around the baby.”

While it didn’t take long for the newborn to splash down into the water, the entire process wasn’t without a few glitches. Despite the shallowness of the river in this spot, the baby initially floundered, Streck recalls.

Image © Dan Streck

“An older female stepped in and, working with the mother, held the baby’s head out of the water. Slowly, the baby gained its footing and began to stumble.”

According to scientist Michelle Henley of Elephants Alive, water births of this kind are rarely seen – and the success of this delivery hinged on assistance and support from the more experienced members of the herd.

“The older, more experienced cow played a vital role in helping the baby take its first breath,” says Henley. “If the elephants were too young, inexperienced and few in number, crocodiles could also present a real risk.”

For Henley, this encounter underscores the importance of elephant social bonds and the role played by experienced matriarchs in the survival and wellbeing of the entire herd – a crucial function that could be lost as poaching decimates Africa’s elephant populations.

“Sadly, poaching removes the oldest individuals with the largest tusks first, so we can only hope that these ‘mentors of motherhood’ persist to ensure the long-term survival of elephants and elephant society. This sequence of photos beautifully illustrates their importance,” she notes.

For this lucky youngster, the herd’s protective efforts paid off. After around an hour of unsteady wallowing, the baby found its feet and the mother was able to steer it towards the river bank.

“I feel so fortunate to have experienced this,” says Streck.

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