Keepers' Diaries, April 2004

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Voi Reintegration Unit

Nursery Elephants:- The month began on a frenetic note, when what was foreseen as a mere photocall in exchange for a donation to the Orphans’ Project, unexpectedly became a high profile occasion. Nakumat in conjunction with Samsung planned a launch of their new Smart Card using the Nursery Elephants as a backdrop, since their Logo happens to be an elephant pushing a Shopping Trolley! A huge Shopping Trolley was duly delivered ahead of time fpor Practice Sessions, and when the Hon. A.A. Moody Awori EBS MP, the Vice President of Kenya and Minister for Home Affairs agreed to grace the occasion as Guest of Honour, the event took on a different complexion!

Nursery Elephants:- The month began on a frenetic note, when what was foreseen as a mere photocall in exchange for a donation to the Orphans’ Project, unexpectedly became a high profile occasion. Nakumat in conjunction with Samsung planned a launch of their new Smart Card using the Nursery Elephants as a backdrop, since their Logo happens to be an elephant pushing a Shopping Trolley! A huge Shopping Trolley was duly delivered ahead of time fpor Practice Sessions, and when the Hon. A.A. Moody Awori EBS MP, the Vice President of Kenya and Minister for Home Affairs agreed to grace the occasion as Guest of Honour, the event took on a different complexion!

On the appointed day, the 1st April, all-night rain turned our premises into one huge mudbath, and the mudbath itself part of a running stream of floodwaters! We were up early to ensure that both Keepers and elephants were suitably clad and waiting in the wings to be summonsed when needed. The top brass of both Nakumat and Samsung arrived very early to oversee all the preparations, somewhat dismayed at the weather, but a loudspeaking system had to be set up for the speeches, huge banners depicting their wares placed, and a covered venue found for some 80 invited Guests who would be partaking of refreshments, hopefully under cover. Meanwhile, Daphne’s verandah was prepared to accommodate the Vice President and the V.I.P.’s, who would also be served canapés, drinks and/or tea and coffee by white-clad waiters due to arrive with the Outside Catering Van.

Preparations were on course, but were thrown awry when suddenly a contingent of Press arrived in a flap to announce that the The Vice Presidential party was on its way and due to arrive, not at 11 a.m. as expected, but at 9.30 a.m. which, at that moment, was only 15 minutes away! Mobile phones appeared clamped to flustered Company officials ears, and on the dot the Black limousine with the Kenyan flag fluttering up front drew in, accompanied by a very visible Police Escort fore and aft, just ahead of the Outside Catering Van bearing tables, linen, and all the food and drinks.

Very fortunately, our side was ready. We had been up since 5 a.m. emptying and cleaning our covered vehicle shelter and garage of cars, ensuring that the elephants and Keepers were dressed in their best for the occasion (new matching blankets (donated by British Airways for the elephants) and clean uniforms for the Keepers.

The huge Shopping Trolley filled with gaily coloured parcels was hurriedly wheeled out to the mudbath area, the usual rope cordon erected behind which the Press and guests would stand in order to get a clear view of the action and since the Vice President was obviously in a hurry, and his refreshments needed to be laid out on the verandah, it was to the mudbath that we all first went whilst the elephants approached from the bushes, and little Shida, the rhino, was also on view, on the periphery. Cameras clicked and flash bulbs flashed whilst frantic Reporters with notebooks crowded around eager to catch the Vice President’s comments. The elephants behaved impeccably once they had downed their milk with Napasha starting the ball rolling by pushing the trolley with assistance from Tomboi whilst the others investigated its contents with probing trunks. Taita, Olmalo and Wendi embarked on a game of football, and Ndomot, as usual, had a trunk clamped to a Keeper’s cheek! Madiba strolled past the admiring audience, making himself look as tall as possible in a supremely confident fashion and his hairy appearance, and unusual story stole the show!

The Vice President is a great elephant enthusiast. He was clearly enthralled and in his speech was lavish in his praise of the Trust’s conservation input, and supportive of Kenya’s stand to hold the Ivory Ban at this year’s CITES Conference of the Parties. More brief speeches followed, hurriedly delivered, after which the Vice President and his entourage posed for a photocall and managed to snatch a cup of tea on the verandah, before leaving. Behind was left a veritable feast of canapés and cakes, which were greatly enjoyed by all the Guests with heaps left over for our Staff, and our two grown rhinos, Magnum and Makosa, both of whom have a great liking for anything sweet! It was a red letter day for all, and everyone was pleased with how the occasion went, and especially impressed by the performance of our infant elephants who rose to the occasion on cue!

Thereafter the month has been devoid of any health issues in the Nursery, which is always cause for celebration. Madiba and Ndomot both thrive, safely over the problems that plagued them earlier. Madiba is extremely fond of little Sunyei, and she of him, looking upon him as her special “baby” whilst Ndomot has slotted into being the shared baby of Wendi and Selengai. He is also close to Madiba, but also competitive, as are all young bulls, each wanting to be of higher rank than the other. Taita and Olmalo remain a devoted pair, but Taita, being a boy, also enjoys the company of the other young bulls, especially Napasha, who is the oldest. Tomboi oscillates between spending time with the other young bulls and Wendi and Selengai, being very close to Wendi.

Ndomot is a complex character, who obviously suffers from insecurity, probably rooted from having been alone in the Police Cell in far-off Ol Donyo Nyiro after being orphaned as a tiny calf. He is extremely choosey about which Keeper is with him at night, insisting upon one who has been also with him out in the bush before bed time. Whenever a man returns from a break of “off”, loud bellows from Ndomot’s Nursery stable alert everyone that he would rather have one of the others for the night, which involves a shuffle! Since it is important that he looks upon all the Keepers as family, great ingratiating pains are currently in progress, and we hope to break this habit in time. More than all the others, he is extremely needy of constant reassurance and affection, never far from a Keeper, who has to put up with his prickly trunk pressed against a face.

Madiba, though smaller in stature, is older and much more confident, a tough little character who seldom cries and when displeased with either a Keeper or another elephant, deals a hefty and silent shove to make his needs known! He is still very hairy; a replica of a woolly mammoth! It is very gratifying that he is now firmly established as a member of the “herd” and very much more elephant than human oriented. Selengai is the member of the group who tends to “fly underneath the radar”, sufficient unto herself and happy to hang out with Wendi and Ndomot. Tomboi obviously views himself as protector of the others when Napasha is enjoying time apart, something he relishes. Taita is possessive of his friend, OlMalo, who is a very friendly and sociable character, always eager to greet her admiring foster-parents and human visitors. When in the Stockade she and Taita share at night, he tries to block her passage to the door, jealous of sharing her affection with her human admirers who, as foster-parents, are allowed to turn up out of hours in the evening.

There has been a lot of rain in Nairobi throughout the month, making the little flood watercourse flow as a swift stream, with mud puddles aplenty and a flush of succulent vegetation to sample and enjoy. It has been a very contented month for our 9 Nursery elephants who are all thriving and are settled and happy. Days are spent feeding and at play and nights spent sleeping peacefully, little heads resting on either a mattress or the lap of their Night Keeper.

Madiba’s attraction to, and fascination of, rhinos remains evident and strong. Whereas the other Nursery Elephants treat our two grown rhino orphans, Magnum and Makosa, with deep suspicion and even fear, Madiba longs to run up to them, which is not surprising since it was a baby rhino who was his earliest companion at Wildcare in South Africa. He obviously remembers this friendship with great fondness. Nevertheless, such friendships are discouraged by us, following the death of an early orphan “Sam” who was raised with the early elephant orphans and ended up being fatally wounded by a wild bull elephant in Tsavo, when grown and when he refused to give way at a bush mud hole. Since then, we do not let the orphaned rhinos and elephants interact since, as different species who may in the future be in competition for water, it is not in their best interests to become over familiar.

The Rhinos:- Little Shida grows apace and becomes ever more rotund. For him, likewise, it has been a fun month, with mud puddles everywhere, and fresh wild rhino smells aplenty to explore at the various middens out in the bush. He now knows the scent of Makosa and Magnum well and they have obviously accepted his presence, no longer going round with tails erect denoting suspicion and alarm whenever they scent his passage through the bush.

It obviously promises to be a special rainy season, for the Gyrostigma flies (which are specific to Rhinos), have been unusually active. Magnum, especially, has been sporting their eggs in his skin indentations around the neck and mouth. David Sheldrick was one of two people to first successfully hatch a Gyrostigma fly, in David’s case from a bot passed in the dung of our first Tsavo rhino orphan of the sixties, a bull named “Rufus”. Very little is known about this fly, which only appears when conditions are optimum, and is crepuscular by habit, active only at dusk and dawn. It mimics a wasp in appearance, sporting metallic blue wings and a scarlet face stripe, but it has no mouth parts, its sole role in a short life being to find a living rhino as the host on which to lay its comma-sized eggs which hook into the skin indentations. These hatch into a minute inch-worm within a day or two, depending upon temperature, and these then burrow straight through the skin, and somehow end up in the rhino hosts stomach as a large beetle sized “bot”. It is there that it spends the greatest part of its life cycle, sometimes venturing to peep our of the anus, and again retreating if conditions are not perfect for the next stage of pupating in the ground having been passed in the dung. All rhinos have these “bots” and apparently different populations have slight variations of the insect. Since rhinos are fiercely territorial it is not surprising that over millennia this has occurred in separate rhino populations. Hence the lives of this insect and rhinos are inextricably interwoven. Previously it was not known how the inchworm which hatches from the eggs of the Gystigma fly enter the stomach, until we armed our Rhino Keepers with magnifying glasses and saw the worms entry through the skin into the bloodstream. So this too, is “first” for the Trust, but on a somewhat different level!

Also obvious during this wet season is another less unobtrusive rhino parasite, the filarial worm that is responsible for the lesions that are often seen as wounds behind the shoulder, on the flanks, under the neck and tummy, of rhinos. David was convinced that another rhino specific fly called “Rhinomusca” was the vector of this worm, which presents an ongoing challenge to keep under control. We use neem oil and tea tree oil mixed with a base cream to try and keep it under control and whenever our two grown rhino orphans return, which both do on an almost daily basis, usually accompanied by a horde of rhinomusca flies clustered around any lesion, their filarial sores are annointed.
In this way, we manage to keep the sores under control, although they constantly reappear. Rather like a ringworm, they itch, and the rhino host rubs them for relief, creating the sores so commonly seen.

Tsavo Orphans:- The area utilised by our Voi orphans, within range of their Night Stockades, remains lush and green. Very heavy rain has continued to fall in other areas of the Park, and particularly in the North, so once again, interaction with wild herds has been limited, occurring only at the beginning of the month when the orphans were joined by a herd of 5 wild elephants and when a wild bull chased off the Keepers at the mudbath. A wild group of 7 joined the orphans on the 2nd and on this occasion it was Mpala, Nasalot and Seraa who ran forward to greet them whilst Laikipia locked trunks in greeting with what was obviously a wild friend, and Ilingwezi held onto a wild baby’s back leg, not wanting it to leave with its herd!

Most eventful has been the re-appearance of Dika, on the 16th and the interest he has been taking in Emily. As one of our Big Boys, he does not habitually spend as much time with the orphans as does Edo or Ndume, but this month he has been a regular visitor. Emily will be ll years old this year, and as such is probably ripe for mating, which means that she will have her first baby aged 13 and this is about the right age. From the Diary Dika attempted to mate her on the 17th and 18th, but apparently Emily did not appear too willing! He tried again on the 22nd, chasing her around, which caused a huge stir amongst the rest of the group, who trumpeted and “screamed” until he desisted! However, on the 20th Emily willingly went off alone with a wild bull of around her age, and was away with him for half an hour, so who knows what happened in private! It is likely that having shared a childhood together, Emily views Dika more as a “brother” than a mate, and as such will probably choose a wild boyfriend to father her baby! If a cow is stressed during mating, she may not conceive, but if she is a willing partner, conception is more likely to take place. It is very probably that Emily has come into season for the first time, because the Keepers have not witnessed her being mated before, so we will be watching closely for any changes in her breasts in six month’s time, which apparently is the initial clue to being pregnant, until shortly before actual parturition when the breasts become enlarged with milk.

Amongst the bulls, there has been the usual competitions for dominance, i.e. trying to mount on one another, which sometimes degenerates into a fight. Very unpopular is snatching a tasting morsel from one another, which inevitably brings retribution from the wounded party. Interestingly, when Seraa tried to jump on Solango, he punished her by ostracising her rather than fighting her, but these two elephants have always been very close, both originating from the same rock well in Shaba National Reserve. Again evident in this month’s diary is the love Sweet Sally has for Aitong and vice versa. Not mentioned have been Loisaba and Kinna, who have obviously been peacefully fully occupied just being elephants, feasting on the banquet of fresh greens which don’t last lone in Tsavo, and as such doing nothing worthy of the Keepers’ special notice.

Some of the Tsavo middle-sized group will be moving to the North to join Imenti in June. At the moment these are likely to be the following bulls, Laikipia, Lolokwe, Salama, Nyiro, Sosian, Irima and possibly Mpala and Mukwaju. The females that will also be going (to keep the peace) are likely to be Natumi, Ilingwezi, Mulika, Nasalot, Edie and Icholta. However, all options will be kept open until a few days before the event.

The only encounter with other species this month has been with the friendly impalas, whom, this time found themselves chased off on one occasion by Emily.

April 2004 day to day

01 Apr

A group of 5 wild elephants joined the orphans at their noon mudbath. An old bull who was with them scented where the Keepers were hiding, and charged, forcing them to flee.