On 30th October 2014, newly born elephant twins were spotted along the Mwagusi Sand River in Ruaha National Park, by Dr. Tim Davenport of WCS Tanzania Program. He managed to get this photo of the hours-old infants, and their mother.
This was incredibly exciting news – the first ever record of elephant twins in Ruaha, as far as we know – but we could not help feeling worried too. Especially since they had arrived towards the end of the dry season, the toughest time of year for elephants in Ruaha, when food and water are becoming scarce, and even adults can start to ‘lose condition’. Would their mother be able to provide enough milk for two hungry infants? Would these young siblings make it to the onset of the rains?
In general, elephant twins are an extremely rare occurrence, that very few people are fortunate enough to see. It is estimated that less than 1% of elephant pregnancies give rise to twins, but in truth we do not know the exact figure (one set of twins was recorded from 1192 births in Amboseli). We know that the first couple of months are a critical and dangerous time for all elephants, and from the very few records of twins that exist, it seems that survivorship is lower among twins than single babies.
In the days that followed, keen to monitor their progress, we searched three times for mother and twins, but in vain. We knew that they could not go far, with those little legs… and since there was still no rain, they would not wander more than a kilometre or two from the sand river, on which mother depends for water every day. Finally, on 13th November, we found the mother elephant – identifiable from the small notches in her ears – with one tiny calf…
Sadly, one of the twins had clearly not made it. However, the surviving twin, a male, was a joy to watch. Looking strong and healthy, he was playing exhuberantly, despite the midday heat. While mama focused on drinking from her elephant well in the sand, the young male zoomed around between her legs, running full-tilt before crashing head-first into a hole, or flopping onto his side. He was enjoying his enormous sandpit.
We have decided to name this first known twin of Ruaha as Pacha, which means twin in kiswahili.
Two weeks after this sighting, the rains arrived in earnest, and we have not seen Pacha and his mother since then. Water will be more widespread until May, meaning they can wander in the thicker bush, away from the open river. We will keep looking though, and hope that our additional presence in the area, on the ground and in the air, will help to keep them safe.
Postscript: Follow this link for pictures of elephant twins born last month in South Africa. Note how wet and green the environment looks, compared to Ruaha when Pacha and his sibling were born.
Some references for further reading on elephant twins
Foley, C. A. (2002). High incidence of elephant twin births in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Pachyderm, 32, 64-66.
Freeman, E. W., Whyte, I., & Brown, J. L. (2009). Reproductive evaluation of elephants culled in Kruger National Park, South Africa between 1975 and 1995. African Journal of Ecology, 47(2), 192-201.
Moss, C. J. (2001). The demography of an African elephant (Loxodonta africana) population in Amboseli, Kenya. Journal of Zoology, 255(02), 145-156.