Even to a baby elephant, he surely can’t look much like mother.
But to a young orphan called Joe, this 29-year-old nature reserve keeper has become the next best thing.
The three-month-old pygmy elephant was pictured last week nuzzling his lifeless mother in a desperate attempt to revive her.
His distress was so visible it moved wildlife officials to tears.
The mother had become the latest victim of a mysterious spate of poisoning in the tropical rainforest of Malaysia, one of 14 now known to have died.
Had Joe not been rescued he would almost certainly have stayed at his mother’s side until he starved to death. Frightened, thirsty and confused, he had lost weight and might have ingested poison through his mother’s milk.
Despite 24-hour care in the nature reserve now looking after him, experts feared Joe could still die of a broken heart.
Then he was introduced to Augustin David. Now, in a remarkable bond between man and beast, the keeper has become Joe’s surrogate mum.
Like any parent, Augustin faces a gruelling schedule that requires feeding Joe every two hours, all through the night, with a particular mix of formula milk that the infant has a taste for.
Playtime involves him running Joe around the compound at Lok Kawi zoo near Kota Kinabalu, which the little elephant loves; and persuading him to keep still for bathtime, which he loathes.
‘He has clear likes and dislikes,’ Augustin said. ‘He loves suckling people’s thumbs - just like a human baby, it calms him.
But he doesn’t like showers, so we have to wash him in his pen. At the moment he is losing his baby skin so he likes to rub against anything because he’s itchy.'
He also loves attention. And when it’s not focused on him, he is not slow to let his adopted mother know.
He kicks Augustin in the legs or nudges up against him. ‘He’s active, playful and naughty,’ the keeper said proudly. In any other circumstances, this would be simply a delightful if rather bizarre partnership. At the moment, however, it is still a fight for life.
Dr Diana Ramirez, the vet overseeing Joe’s recovery, told the Daily Mail: ‘He is far from safety yet. It’s too soon to be sure that he will make it – sometimes baby elephants can look OK and then die suddenly.
‘They are very prone to colic and it can be fatal very quickly. Once he’s past six or seven months, we can be more confident. But he clearly has a strong will to survive.’
About two-thirds of the world’s diminishing population of Borneo pygmy elephants can be found in Malaysia.
Investigations are still being carried out to discover what wiped out the 14 adult elephants, and whether they were killed deliberately, by accidental contamination or infection. Last week it was claimed that palm oil plantation workers were responsible for poisoning the animals.
Experts believe the elephants could have eaten toxic substances laid to keep away ‘pests’ from the highly lucrative crop.
They live on land in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve which is very close to palm oil fields.
All the animals that died still had their tusks and none bore gunshot wounds, indicating that poachers were not responsible.
The future? If he pulls through, Joe is likely to stay at the 280-acre park for the rest of his life – rescued elephants often have difficulty adapting to life in the wild.
He won’t be lonely. An instant family – the reserve’s 16 other injured and orphaned elephants – are waiting to be introduced.