At first glance, the situation seemed dire: The mother, her calf, and another elephant, surrounded by a pack of more than 14 wild dogs, which hunt in cooperative bands.
But the brilliant social creatures' capacity for communication gave them the upper hand against would-be predators. When under duress, elephants make guttural, trumpeting calls that startled the wild dogs, says Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a Stanford University expert on elephant behavior. (Also see "Watch: How Did a Young Elephant Drive Off 14 Lions?")
These unsettling roars do more than dissuade the predators, notes O'Connell-Rodwell, a National Geographic grantee who has observed elephants put up similar fights against lions and hyenas in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.
“[A] very similar call appears to be bringing the [wider elephant] group back,” says O’Connell-Rodwell. The video shows more elephants emerging from the forest that ultimately scatter the dog pack.
"There was a very noisy back and forth between the elephant and the wild dogs, she would charge at them trumpeting, they would scatter, only to quickly regroup and start making a move towards the small calf," Dennis Browning, a South African tourist who filmed the encounter, told Caters News Agency.
"By this time the rest of the herd of elephants had come charging in and were waiting at the top of the riverbank for the mother and her calf."
O’Connell-Rodwell points out, however, that the family members returning to help the threatened calf may well have been the ones to put it in danger by ostracizing the likely low-ranking mother. (Also see "How Did Porcupine Repel 17 Lions? Explaining Viral Video.")
"Some young mothers separate themselves from the rest of the family like this,” she says. “When they have a baby, sometimes there is a lot of aggression [toward them], and so they distance themselves from the family. That makes them very vulnerable.”
As for Browning, he was "very relieved" with the outcome.
"When we first came across the scene part of me realised how incredible it would be to see a kill," he says, "but my allegiance quickly changed to complete support for the tiny elephant calf."
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