The Smell of Elephants: Part 2


(The night of Naledi's birth)

I was on the first shift from nine till midnight in the boma on the night of November 26th. I loved this shift because it meant I could watch Lorato and Paseka, Kiti’s daughters, play fight for the first few hours. Lorato, aged 4, would chase her younger adopted sister Paseka, aged 3, around the boma. Paseka would suddenly gather her courage and spin to face her opponent, and after a momentary stare down, they would charge simultaneously, crashing into each other at full force, their small (but growing) trunks muscling for control. Night after night, I watched the two little girls wear themselves out tussling, just like human sisters.

Around 11:30 the girls would fall into an exhausted heap, followed by Kiti. Disappointed, I thought to myself, "well the birth isn't happening tonight" and took the opportunity to make myself a quick coffee in Welly’s office in an old shipping container. Settling back into my seat in front of the camera monitor with my coffee, I noticed Kiti was getting back up again 5 minutes later. After filming her for three weeks now I knew her sleep patterns and this wasn't normal. I rolled the two cameras just in case, climbed the ladder to adjust the infrared light to cover Kiti in invisible light and rushed back to the camera, where Kiti was squatting down on her back legs and bouncing there for a few seconds. I sucked in a breath and radioed Brett, the lead elephant handler on duty. He’s witnessed a half-dozen elephant births before, so he knows the signs. There had been quite a few false alarms over the past weeks, where we would frantically radio poor Brett at 2 AM and have him rush to the scene only to conclude “she’s having a pee.” But this time Brett confirmed my suspicions. Kiti was in labor.

Kiti goes into labor. 

Kiti goes into labor. 

My partner in crime Emre, not just in filmmaking but also life, shot up from his tabletop slumber and manned the other camera. It became a delicate dance between Emre, Brett and I, as we silently moved the cameras in the dark, following Kiti’s every move. Up and down the ladder adjusting the light undetectable to the elephants, moving cameras for optimal angles. Labor is an active experience for elephants, we filmed her lying down for short naps and using a tree to bear against to counter the pressure of labor. I could see Kiti’s eyes rimmed in white above me as she bore down through the pain. Her daughter Lorato even pushed into her side. Perhaps to help the baby move down the birth canal? Was it instinct that made her do it or did her mother ask her in one of her low rumbles? There’s so much we still don’t know about elephants.

Word got around camp of Kiti’s labour and dozens of staff rushed to the boma wearing nothing but nightgowns and robes to witness this once in a lifetime experience. The elephants of the Abu Herd are loved like family by the humans there, and the boma took on the scene of an anxious extended family, pacing an outdoor waiting room.

But for them, there was nothing to see; Kiti was invisible in the dark of the moonless night, the only lights from above were a twinkling sea of stars. She was only visible our infrared cameras, tiny windows into this intimate event; which meant everyone bunched around us like flies to experience the birth on a 20cm LCD screen.

Kiti silently labored for hours until around 1:39 am when she let out two loud low-pitched moans and squatted deep for a long contraction. Suddenly, two white spots poked out between her legs, the soles of her baby’s feet. Then Kiti lifted her back leg, almost bouncing on the other, had another big contraction and the baby slid out back legs first. A united “Awwwwww” came from behind me as the crowd squeezed in even closer to glimpse the newborn baby on the tiny screen over my shoulder.   I’m usually an authoritarian when it comes to filming and capturing the natural soundscape, telling everyone to shut up, intensely focused on the moment.  But this time I was the one who couldn’t stop talking, whispering “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God" over and over. I’ve never experienced such euphoria as an onlooker; it was almost miraculous to behold.

Kiti knelt down to examine her new baby, her massive body hovering over this tiny little elephant, sniffing and calling to her in low rumbles. She then got to her feet and started circling her, kicking dust from all sides. Her ears stood fully alert for predators as she felt her baby all over with her trunk, it was like witnessing an elephant birth ceremony. Every hair on my body stood up. No one said a word. It was so intimate, so intense, and I think Lorato was as shocked as we were. She stood with tail and ears cocked high motionless watching her mum’s performance. Paseka was much more confident this time, and walked straight up to greet the new baby. The baby’s name would be Naledi, which is Setswana for “starry night”.

Naledi kisses!

Naledi kisses!

Emre and I sat quietly for hours after that, watching the new family bond from a distance. When the first light of dawn finally came, and baby Naledi’s worldview grew, she eventually noticed us. She wiggled through a gap in the boma fence that kept us apart to inspect these strange, trunkless beings hunched on the ground. After weeks of sleepless nights, Emre and I got the reward of being the first humans to greet Naledi. Kiti looked on, I like to think with pride, as we nuzzled and snuggled the newborn, and inhaled lungfuls of that fresh baby smell that it turns out, is universal.

Two years, two months, and one day later, on yet another moonless night, Emre and I were lucky enough to welcome our own baby girl into the world.  

We named her Omey Leyla Naledi.

Our own Naledi.

Our own Naledi.

Read Part 1 of this blog here

You can watch Naledi's journey at the Seattle International Film Festival in the film premier of Naledi: A Baby Elephant's Tale.