Monday, March 17, 2014

Baby Elephant Walk: A Baby Elephant in the Wild by Caitlin O'Connell

Like all newborn elephants, Liza is hairy--much hairier than her older brother and cousin.

And the backs of her ears are bright pink.

Even her belly and toenails are pink.

And even though at birth she weighs 250 pounds and has the gray, wrinkled skin of a grown-up pachyderm, little Liza is every bit as winsome and adorable as any baby animal. Leaning against her mother's strong legs, she learns to stand soon after birth and walks in a few hours, and within the day she is able to keep up with her mother and the rest of their family group--an aunt, a half-grown brother, and young female cousin.

Looking tiny as she travels beneath her 8000-pound mother's belly for protection from the hot sun and from predators, her first journey ends at their watering hole, where she waits in line with earlier-arriving elephant families before she learns to use her trunk to get her first drink of water. Little Liza loves her first water bath and then is treated to a mud bath to protect her tender baby skin from insects and sunburn. The other females stay near to help if the baby should get stuck in the mud or slip into deeper water.
A baby female elephant will live with her mother for life. It will take Liza twenty-five to thirty years to get as big as her mother is now.

For as long as she is strong enough, her mother will protect Liza.

As they move across the Namibian desert landscape, Liza meets and plays with the other babies in their little herd and rests in whatever shade they can find while the adult elephants form a outward-facing circle around the sleeping little ones. Hunting lions and hyenas can cut a straggling baby elephant out of the group, and all the adults take a role in parenting the youngest ones. Besides the hunting animals, predatory poachers, killing for elephant ivory, can leave an orphaned baby, too young to survive alone, to starve.

But predators are not the only danger for young elephants. Once widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, elephants are now limited to the Congo basin and the Namibian scrub desert. Loss of food sources from wildfires, climate change, and forest clearing can eventually reduce their numbers to the point of extinction outside the protected preserves. Members of the ancient order Probiscidae, elephants and their ancestors have been on earth for 55 million years and may yet face extinction in this century without human intervention in their protection.

Caitlan O'Connell's photo essay, A Baby Elephant in the Wild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), offers much information about this fascinating animal, so like humans in their long lives and close family relationships, in simple text easily accessible to the younger readers. Up close and personal photographs by Timothy Rodwell show the young elephant in her first few months of life, saying her first hello to her cousins with a trunk salute, learning to splash and play in the watering hole, and being baby-sat by her big brother just as a young human might be. Photographs appear in two formats throughout--as full-page photos and as appealing snapshots in mounting brackets "pasted" against a pink background, album-style.

For slightly older readers, see Caitlin O'Connell's The Elephant Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), an entry in the much lauded Scientists in the Field series and which was awarded the American Library Association's Sibert Honor Award for young people's nonfiction in 2012. In this book O'Connell traced the migrations of an elephant family in Namibia's Etosha National Park and published her groundbreaking research in elephant communication through ground vibrations.

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