An extremely interesting event involving the Ithumba orphans is graphically described in this month’s Keepers’ Diary which will leave all who read this as astonished as were we ourselves and the Keepers. It occurred on the 31st July, when Sunyei, Olmalo and Wendi were allowed the privilege of leading the other orphans to their normal feeding ground in the morning. Suddenly Yatta, who was way behind, and who is the acknowledged main Matriarch of the Ithumba orphans, rushed ahead, and very forcefully blocked the passage of the three young elephants, trumpeting in a high state of excitement and determinedly pushing them back. This astonished the Keepers, for Yatta never normally behaves like this and certainly is always very gentle and caring towards her “special calf” Olmalo, and indeed all the younger elephants. Their curiosity aroused, the Keepers went ahead to investigate, and could not believe their eyes when they encountered a huge puff-adder with a damaged tail lying in the path in a very aggressive frame of mind, coiled and ready to strike. How Yatta knew that there was a snake ahead that posed a deadly threat to her adopted “family” is puzzling indeed, for she could not possibly have seen or heard it. Did she scent it? We will never know for sure, but this, yet again, demonstrates the mysterious abilities of elephants, and their ability to reason. How does Yatta know that a snake is such a serious threat? This must surely yet again indicate the fact that elephants have a genetic memory honed by exposure to a wild situation.
An event on the 5th August in this month’s Diary also illustrates the very compassionate and sympathetic nature of elephants and their care of one another. Taita’s left leg became entangled between two branches barbed with strong spikes (probably a Boswellia),which punctured his skin. His bellows brought both the Keepers and all the other elephants to the rescue to try and release him, the elephants watching with interest as some of the Keepers struggled to disentangle his leg.. Having accomplished this, and whilst the Keepers “administered first aid” to Taita’s wounds, the four older females, Yatta, Mulika, Nasalot and Kinna closely surrounded the trembling calf, rumbling gently and touching him with their trunks to comfort and reassure him. Once Taita had recovered his composure, he was allowed the unusual privilege of leading the group back to the Night Stockades in the evening, a treat usually reserved for the smaller females of the group such as Wendi and Sunyei. In the month that the four ex Nursery inmates have been part of the Ithumba unit, Sunyei has a very good bump of locality, and is often in the forefront, leading the others to the mudbath or back home.
The month has been cool, it being “winter” in Tsavo, so there has not been much mudbath activity. However, the weather suddenly turned very hot again the 19th and 20th. which Madiba found uncomfortable, making him to resort to the extreme measure of drawing up reserves of stomach water to cool himself. Since elephants have no sweat glands and cannot perspire, they do this by inserting the trunk down their throat and sucking the fluid up to spray over their body, first seen by the late David Sheldrick way back in the fifties and later captured on film by Simon Trevor. However, this is the first time that one of our orphans has done this, an event witnessed by all the Keepers who were on duty on the 20th August.
On the 16th August, a large wild bull again visited the orphans, this time just before dawn broke. He came alone, standing just a few paces from the wire of the Stockade. The orphans all raised their trunks and rumbled a greeting, which he returned, but when he heard the Keepers’ voices, he moved off, snatching a quick drink from the water trough on the way. Once the orphans were let out in the morning, Yatta led them in pursuit of the visitor, but they were unable to catch up, and eventually abandoned the quest.
Evident in the Ithumba Diary is the fact that Sunyei and Wendi still demonstrate matriarchal tendencies towards the junior set, and that the Nursery friendships of the four newcomers to the unit endure whilst friendships with those that preceded them have been renewed. However, Yatta, Mulika and Nasalot, who had never met the newcomers before, are the main extremely caring Matriarchs of the entire group, Yatta being acknowledged as “Head Matriarch”, but Wendi and Sunyei are definitely Junior Matriarchs, and often leaders either to or from the feeding grounds, and to the mudbath. Tomboi and Taita remain best friends, and also very competitive, Tomboi on one occasion angry with his friend for trying to snatch a tasty branch. He managed to retrieve his prize piece, and took the precaution of dashing behind Nasalot with it, knowing that she would not allow Taita access again! This yet again demonstrates the reasoning and intelligence of elephants.
Wild encounters have involved chattering baboons leaping around branches which scared the newcomers witless, Ndomot leading the retreat back to the Keepers, as well as a flock of noisy weavers who landed unexpectedly in the tree under which the babies were feeding. Again the Ithumba newcomers fled back to the Keepers for protection, whilst Olmalo bravely stood her ground, un-moved having encountered these flocks before on many occasions. However, all the younger elephants now enjoy chasing retreating dikdiks, as well as the vulturine guineaflowl that come to drink at their mudbath but they were unravelled by a running jackal, which Yatta came to expel. Any sign of fear usually brings the older elephants in a rush to deal with any impending threat, before returning to comfort the younger more fearful members of the group.
Understanding how fearful elephants are, being peace-loving and gentle animals, one can understand how much provocation there has been over the years to turn elephants into “problem animals” who kill humans, leading to them being villified in the local Press using the derogatory term “beasts”. Would that the elephants could document the suffering caused them by humans over the centuries! It is not surprising therefore that following 30 years of virtual elephant genocide in Tsavo through poaching for Ivory that the wild herds in the Northern Area are taking such a very long time to pluck up courage in order to make contact with our orphans. This, in itself, speaks volumes, but the wild bull Ambassador will pass on the message, both about the curious little herd of orphans, and also the presence of water near their Stockade!
Galana and Sunyei suffered a serious scare on the 15th as they were enjoying a dustbath in freshly disturbed soil near a hole and the owner of the hole, a large male warthog, shot out! Yet again, Yatta moved in hurriedly to eject the threat. All in all, however, this first month for Galana, Sunyei, Ndomot and Madiba has been a valuable learning curve for them, and they have settled in very well and enjoy their new home, where adventure is never far away.