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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 May 2007, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Do elephants intentionally kill their young?
The Magazine answers...

Photo of Pori and Dumbo by Bzfoto
Pori and Dumbo have now bonded

Pictures of an elephant calf being rescued after his mother appeared to try to crush him made headlines. So, do elephants intentionally kill their young?

Poor old Dumbo, it's hardly the display of loving motherly devotion most newborns receive.

The 250lb elephant calf made headlines on Wednesday when he was rescued after his mother appeared to try to crush him, then drown him in their enclosure at Friedrichsfelde Animal Park in Berlin.

The incident turned the new arrival - nicknamed Dumbo but officially still nameless - into Germany's top animal celebrity overnight and also made headlines around the world.

Some have been known to kill their calves in captivity, but there is no conclusive reason why

Staff played down the incident, saying it is a natural reflex action of elephant mothers to stimulate their newborns to stand by nudging them.

But while African elephant Pori may have been lovingly, yet clumsily, trying to do this, she has history - she crushed her first baby to death.

Ian Redmond, wildlife consultant with the Born Free Foundation and elephant expert, says Pori's behaviour will be influenced by what she learned about motherhood when she was growing up.

"Elephants don't work on instinct," he says. "They are flexible in their behaviour and are cultural animals. Whatever they learn in their formative years will influence the way they act."

Quality of life

In the wild, elephant calves are looked after by the females in the group, who are all involved in their protection, education and discipline.

From an early age young females babysit the calves. This is known as allo-mothering. As a result they have a lot of experience and knowledge of calves before becoming mothers themselves, which stands them in good stead.

When they do give birth, they also have another female with them who acts as a midwife.

If Pori has spent a long time in captivity she may have little experience of rearing young, so giving birth and dealing with her newborn could have been a frightening experience, says Mr Redmond.

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A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines
"In captive elephants it is common for them not to know about looking after their young."

She may also have gone through birth without another female to help and comfort her.

Elephants in zoos have been known to intentionally kill their young, but there is only speculation as to why this is.

"Some people think it could be a conscious decision," says Mr Redmond. "If their quality of life is poor and they are faced with just a concrete yard, they don't want their offspring to face the same and kill them. But it's just a theory."

This incident ended happily. Pori was given a mild sedative and placed with Dumbo in the elephant house under observation.

According to the latest from the zoo, mother and son are getting along "magnificently".

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