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Charming moments with Tucson's baby elephant

Meet Nandi.

The Caliente poll brought in 7,880 votes by noon Tuesday, with 65 percent of those votes for Nandi and 35 percent for Imvula.

Nandi (Nahn-dee), which is a common siSwati name for girls and means “sweet” or “fun” in the Zulu language beat Imvula (im-VOO-lah), with the nickname Immie, meaning “rain” in siSwati to honor her monsoon-season birth.

Elephant keepers who have spent the most time with her say the name suits her, though some were Team Imvula.

This 300-plus pound baby has a heavy load to carry. She’s the first female among two brothers, the first elephant born at the Reid Park Zoo, and the first elephant born in the state of Arizona.

“Even as a child, I loved elephants, and I am so thrilled that we now have a beautiful baby girl elephant here in Tucson. ..” says Green Valley reader Ann Gillingham in an email after voting for Nandi. “That is why it was so worthwhile to have the opportunity to help choose her name, something that I have never been able to do before.”

Eugene Schiffert, a retired postal worker, says in an email that the baby looks like a “Nandi” and that “every cute baby needs a name.”

Her naming is one of many milestones. First steps, snacks and baths — all of it is special for a new baby. And when you’re a petite pachyderm that trots through the zoo and into our hearts, we want to know about that first mud wallow, too.

Good thing she’s strong, healthy and ready to delight. Here are just a few of this baby’s firsts.

Water

For little Nandi, every puddle is mud-wallow worthy.

Rainy days mean Slip ‘N Slides, and when it gets too wet, Mom makes the perfect umbrella.

“I’ve never cared about weather so much until caring for these elephants,” says Sue Tygielski, the zoo’s elephant manager. “Is it too puddly? Is it too chilly? You worry about them slipping, but that is her favorite thing to do. She runs into the wet grass and slides into it. I don’t know why I’m so worried about her.”

Her first shower about two days after birth sent her four legs sprawling in opposite directions on the wet concrete “like a dog on ice,” Tygielski says.

This baby loves water.

“Any time there is a puddle or she is by the drinking trough, her mom will splash the water on them to cool down, and she just dives into it and kneels down and rolls over,” Tygielski says. “We’ve given her tiny tubs of water, and she tries to climb in.”

Food

Now about 1 month old, Nandi keeps her keepers on the go. If she sleeps longer than 30 minutes, her mom Semba wakes her up to nurse. She nurses for about one hour and 30 minutes each day, in intervals.

Nutrition will come solely from nursing for about six months, and she will continue to nurse long after that, but sticks and leaves are still fair game for any curious baby’s mouth.

In the last week, she has started toting sticks around the exhibit with her trunk, often hustling to keep up with Mom.

Family time

She still spends most of her time following Semba but shares the love with the rest of her herd.

When she and 12,000-pound Mabu took their first father-daughter mud wallow several days after her birth, he watched carefully for her underfoot.

When she tried to nurse from her “Auntie” Lungile, the unrelated elephant waited patiently while she explored.

And then there are her brothers.

Punga, her oldest brother, treats her with respect. Tygielski says it’s those seasoned, big-brother instincts kicking in. Sundzu, bumped from baby to middle child, is more of a rascal toward his sister as he adapts to sharing Mom.

“Sundzu, the first day that she was out with him, he looked at Mom and Aunt and nobody was watching, and he pushed his sister over,” Tygielski says. “It was so clear and thought out. He tried it a few days later, and Mom reprimanded him and smacked him with her trunk.”

But like any good, little sister, Nandi can dish it back out.

“She will hang on her brothers and run around them and grab their tails,” Tygielski says. She especially enjoys tugging on the hairs, or tassels, at the end of each tail. “She likes to play with Mom’s tail a lot. Mom has long tassels, so she will grab them like a little kid grabbing Mom’s skirt.”

Following Mom

On her first day of life, Semba had to rescue Nandi from a corner — she didn’t know how to back up — and though she now runs and romps, she isn’t beyond the occasional face plant and general silliness.

While most elephants put sand, sticks and hay on their backs to keep cool, Semba likes a little extra headcover — a style she is passing on to her daughter.

“It’s like a little traveling meal,” Tygielski says. “She puts hay on (the baby’s head) and then takes it back and eats it.”

Keepers reward Semba with treats for letting them touch the baby through a protective barrier for physical inspections. Nandi cooperates. Sometimes.

A mind — and toy — of her own

As her days increase, so does her confidence.

“She is now starting to flare her ears and hold her head up high and charge,” Tygielski says. “She’s starting to do that farther and farther away from Mom.”

But for a while, sticking close to Semba brings unexpected joys.

About three weeks ago, keepers gave Semba an adult elephant ball about the size of her daughter. Nandi had other ideas.

“So much of her environment, everything is new, so we haven’t felt the need to throw other things in…” Tygielski says. “The ball was for Mom, and she and Mom were together, and Mom was rolling it to get treats. Baby took the ball away and ran off with it.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@tucson.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett


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