This elephant was born in Tsavo East National Park, and at a particularly troubled period in that Park’s history, when Somali poachers armed with automatic weapons invaded the Park, and along with corrupt elements within the notorious Wildlife Management and Conservation Department of the Government, massacred elephants for ivory, and rhinos for their horns, aided and abetted by people in high places who were busy enriching themselves by this means. The wholesale slaughter went on without respite for the three decades following the departure and death of David Sheldrick in 1977, reducing the Tsavo elephant population from 20,000 to just 5,000, and practically entirely eliminating the rhinos. Only in 1989 when the trade in Ivory and Rhino horn was banned by the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), was poaching within the Protected Areas brought under some semblance of control.
Chuma, was a poaching orphan. He was 8 months old when he lost his mother and elephant family and was in good condition when found, so he was able to be handed directly into the care of the then famous Orphan Matriarch, “Eleanor” who was based at the Voi Park Headquarters. She was kept semi captive during the elephant holocaust years, being worth more alive, than dead, to the corrupt Park officials of the day. But, she could not escape the trauma to which her kind were being subjected, and suffered deeply, receiving the distress calls and cries of those wild as they died in droves on a daily basis. With her was a young female orphan named Lissa, who had been found and rescued by a visitor to the Park. She was orphaned through poaching, as well.
Since Chuma was so small, and vulnerable, Eleanor embraced him and showered him with all the love of which only an elephant is capable, whilst Lissa became the self appointed little “Nannie”. The first batch of orphans reared in the Trust’s Nairobi Nursery had yet to arrive in Tsavo and when they did, Eleanor was over-joyed to have a new “family”. Amongst these was the young bull named “Olmeg” who was the very first infant African elephant ever to have been successfully hand-reared from such a young age. Olmeg was just 2 weeks old when he became an orphan and came into the Nursery.
The word “Chuma” means “iron” in Swahili, and elephant “Chuma” was well named, because although still so young, he was resilient enough to complete his milk dependent period down in Tsavo. To have taken him from Eleanor’s care, would have caused her deep emotional suffering, and she had already been subjected to so much Eleanor adored Chuma, who was, after all, her very own adopted“baby”, since she had yet to be blessed with one of her own.
When Olmeg, and several other ex-Nursery youngsters arrived in Tsavo, he and Chuma, being of the same age, were immediately very competitive. Their days were spent in playful pushing and shoving contests in an ongoing tussle for dominance, bouts that Chuma always won, until Olmeg managed to solicit some help from an unexpected source. One day another “wild” orphan turned up, and attached himself to the orphan group. He was given the name “Thomas” and he was instantly befriended by Olmeg. With the help of Thomas, Olmeg finally managed to overpower Chuma . However, the position of “top dog” did not last long, because after a few months, Thomas meandered off again and attached himself to a wild herd, and this gave Chuma the break he needed to reclaim his top status, status being all-important to bull elephants.
He was extremely bonded to Eleanor, who, after all, replaced his fallen mother, whereas the younger ex Nursery elephants gravitated more towards the Keepers who replaced their elephant family in early infancy. Many were orphaned far too young to be able to recall their elephant family, Olmeg being one. On the other hand, Chuma would have remembered his mother and elephant family clearly, so once he attained the age of ten, he took to spending time away with wild friends and their wild families, sometimes taking Olmeg and the other young males along too. By this time Eleanor was in her forties, and yet to become a mother herself. We began to think that she may be sterile, but once poaching came under control in the early nineties, and the wild herds gradually settled down, she was mated by a wild bull and became pregnant for the first time. Determined not to expose her new baby to humans, whom she believed might take it from her, she left to join the wild elephants when midway through her pregnancy, first diligently entrusting Lissa and Chuma, to her wild friend, the elephant we have since named “Catherine” who is the Matriarch of her own wild family.
For a time, Chuma turned up occasionally, and Lissa continues to do so, along with her two wild born calves, not so much to see the Keepers, but to keep in touch with the other orphans. However, the visits of Chuma became briefer and less frequent with the passage of the years and by 2005, the last time he showed up was 6 years ago. Like his sparring partner, Olmeg, he would now be in his late teens, and as such one of the Trust’s most successful orphans, totally rehabilitated back into, and a member of, the wild elephant community of Tsavo. With Eleanor and her calf, or calves, as well as his male orphaned age-mates now also established as “wild” members of the Tsavo population, there is really no incentive for him to return so the tale of our “iron” orphan, named “Chuma”, is therefore one that we can relate with deep pride. We will never forget him, and we wish him well in Tsavo, the elephants’ wilderness homeland.