By Emily Goodhand
Elephants. Not an uncommon sight in the Kruger National Park area. At any given time, one is likely to encounter a breeding herd containing young elephants. But the likelihood of seeing a female elephant with twin calves is exceedingly rare and almost never happens. The reason for this is that both twins seldom survive the natural odds which are stacked against them.
Predators such as lion and hyena are a typical threat to the young elephants, especially if the calves become separated from the herd. Over and above the danger of predation is the probability that the mother will not be able to provide enough milk to both calves, resulting in the survival of the calf with the most determination. If the female does have twins, it is likely that the weaker one will die before it reaches the age of six months.
However, an ordinary trip into the greater Kruger National Park one day in late October 2007 produced some very extraordinary sightings. Hendrik van Deventer, the manager of Nyala Safari Lodge, a commercial lodge in the Umhlametsi Conservancy, was taking his clients on a routine game drive into the Struwig Eco-Reserve within the Balule Private Nature Reserve next to the Olifants River when he encountered a breeding herd of elephants containing two sets of twins.
He describes his excitement when he first noticed them: 'It was the first time I'd ever seen elephant twins, and I was so captivated by the sight of them that I nearly forgot to pick up my camera to photograph them!' Moving the vehicle forward in order to get a better view of the twin elephant calves, he and his clients were in for another even greater surprise: another female came into view with another set of twin calves in tow!
Incredible and highly unusual to witness two female elephants with two independent sets of twin calves, Hendrik carefully noted the details of the female elephants and each of the calves in order to be certain of their relations. In so doing, another startling discovery was revealed: the second female with twins also had an older set of twins which were approximately six years of age!
Such a proliferation of elephant calves is uncommon, particularly given that the gestation period for a female elephant is a staggering 22 months. At birth, a calf can weigh as much as 120 kg (265 lb) and needs a substantial amount of milk to survive, which, in the case of twins, places substantial pressure on the mother.
However, according to mammal guide book author Richard Despard Estes, female elephants which are closely related to the mother often cross-suckle each other's calves to reduce the pressure. Some cows continue to lactate indefinitely which increases access to the milk source for the young calves. Hendrik suggests that this may have contributed to the successful survival of these two sets of twin calves.
Additionally, breeding herds are very protective of elephant calves and as long as the herd can stay together larger predators are usually deterred and prey on other species.
Hendrik admits to never having witnessed such an incredible sight in all the twenty years he has been in the bush. He adds as an afterthought: 'It reminded me that no matter how long you have lived in the bush, there will always be something more to surprise you!'