Keepers' Diaries, August 2009

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Ithumba Reintegration Unit

The Ithumba orphans remain in three distinct groups. Yatta’s group of Senior orphans, the first to make the transition from the Stockades at Ithumba, are all virtually now perfectly normal wild elephants, but, as anticipated, remain in constant and often mysterious contact with all the other orphans whom they regard as “family”, the family being all important to an elephant who has a far better memory than that of a human, and a brain four times the size! With Yatta’s group is the wild recruit named “Mgeni” (meaning visitor) who seems to have become a permanent fixture. More often than not her group is also accompanied by other wild elephant friends who come and go at will, so she and her group truly are reintegrated back into the wild system. Yatta has always been the main Ithumba Matriarch. She is now l0 years of age, born in Tsavo in September l999 and reared in the Nairobi Nursery from the age of l month.

The Ithumba orphans remain in three distinct groups. Yatta’s group of Senior orphans, the first to make the transition from the Stockades at Ithumba, are all virtually now perfectly normal wild elephants, but, as anticipated, remain in constant and often mysterious contact with all the other orphans whom they regard as “family”, the family being all important to an elephant who has a far better memory than that of a human, and a brain four times the size! With Yatta’s group is the wild recruit named “Mgeni” (meaning visitor) who seems to have become a permanent fixture. More often than not her group is also accompanied by other wild elephant friends who come and go at will, so she and her group truly are reintegrated back into the wild system. Yatta has always been the main Ithumba Matriarch. She is now l0 years of age, born in Tsavo in September l999 and reared in the Nairobi Nursery from the age of l month.

The Second age group to make the transition and become totally Keeper Independent is known as “Wendi’s Group”, led by Wendi, an ex Imenti Forest orphan reared in the Nursery from the day she was born, one of another 3 such newborns who owe their life to an infusion of elephant plasma to kick-start their immune system. Wendi is now 9 years of age and although also an integral part of Yatta’s Seniors, and when with them subservient to Yatta as the Matriarch, she often travels independently with some of the younger members and assumes the Matriarchal role over those who choose to join her. Wendi’s group keeps in much closer contact with the Keeper Dependent Youngsters, probably as directed by Yatta, for elephants communicate in mysterious ways not always easily fathomable to us humans deficient in this respect. There have been only very few days this month when Wendi has not joined the Youngsters, either waiting at the Stockades for them to be let out first thing in the morning, or joining them at an obviously pre-determined place out in the bush, spending time and sometimes all day with them, escorting them to the mudbath, and often then leading them to join Yatta’s group who tend to browse further afield usually in the company of wild friends.

The third orphaned group is comprised of those younger elephants more recently transferred from the Nairobi Nursery, who still return to the Stockades for the night. These are known as the Youngsters or Juniors, and about 6 of their number are still milk dependent being still between 3 and 5 years of age. However, even these younger orphans are also virtually independent of the Keepers (but for their milk feeds). The direction they take each day to browse out in the bush is determined not by the Keepers, but by the Junior Matriarchs within their group such as Sian, Loijuk and Naserian, previous Junior Matriarchs, namely Galana and Sunyei, having upgraded themselves to the Senior set. Like their older peers, the Juniors are also comfortable meeting wild elephants, and are actually often joined by wild friends either out in the bush, and even escorted back in the evenings by wild elephants. They mingle peacefully with wild elephant visitors who come to drink at the Stockade water trough.
Whilst older members of the Junior group occasionally choose to spend the odd night out with the Seniors, (this month on the 24th Kamboyo being one), for the first time all the orphaned elephants, including the Juniors, have spent an entire night out with the Seniors away from their Night Stockades, even forfeiting their usual evening and early morning milk feeds. They joined up with the older ex orphans, plus some wild hangers on at the Imenti waterhole area after their usual noon mudbath, and spent the afternoon browsing together. They then all followed Yatta as she led them further and further inland, unusually ignoring the summons of their Keepers when the time came for the Juniors to turn back and head for home. With darkness closing in the Keepers had no option but to leave them to it and make their own way back to base, there to await the arrival of their charges during the night, which is what usually happens - for instance this month on the 21st they returned at midnight with Ol Malo and Challa from the Senior group in tow and last month did the same. However, during the night of the 24th they were gone all night and a search by the Keepers the next day located them only at 1.30 p.m. During last month’s Junior outing when they also returned at midnight, they were trailed by the Seniors obviously to ensure that all found their way back home safely in the dark and. This month Ol Malo had obviously been charged with this chore. Such incidents clearly illustrate the caring and very responsible nature of elephants, their ability to navigate in the dark by memory and scent (since elephants have the same limited night vision as a human), and their concern and love for their family and their friends, reinforcing the fact that elephants are very “human” animals, with all the best traits of us humans and few of the bad.

Ol Malo seems to be somewhat different in that she is becoming even more independent. Having been Yatta’s special baby, and a virtual shadow for many years, she now often travels alone, sometimes turning up at the Stockades on her own, having obviously been with wild friends, or else in the company of wild friends, often bulls. Nevertheless, she obviously remains in very close touch with Yatta and her orphaned peers illustrated by the occasions that she turns up alone to drink at the Stockades, then either bellows or trumpets, and the other orphans immediately appear as though by magic to come and collect her and take her off with them. At other times she arrives alone, takes water, the then merely follows the direction taken by the others. Ol Malo obviously has close wild friends whose company she greatly enjoys. She is now just over 6 years old and is a Laikipia orphan from Ol Malo who came to the Nursery aged 4 months.

The transition to becoming “wild” is something that happens gradually, with individuals from the Junior set opting to spend limited times out with the Seniors on a trial basis, but then returning to the Junior group again for a time. This month Kamboyo took the plunge, and was escorted back home by Yatta after a day or two. Similarly, sometimes members of the Senior group opt for a quieter and more relaxing time by either remaining with the Juniors or staying close to the Stockades and their human family at night, this month Ol Malo and Challa doing so. ( Challa again opted to rejoin the Juniors on the 13th.) However, what is perfectly clear is that all the orphans who have been raised together look upon each other as a related and close family, despite originating from very different populations.

Once again Elephant communication is clearly illustrated in the August Diary, i.e. Yatta and her group waiting at the mudbath on the l0th, only to be joined by Wendi and the Youngsters sometime later in order to wander off together as a herd. Wendi periodically joins the Youngsters at an obviously pre-determined place out in the bush, if not at the Stockades in the early morning, and then escorts them to Yatta’s group. There are many instances that the Youngsters hurry from the Stockades early in the morning, foregoing their usual stockade games and even a drink of water, as they rush off to join the Seniors somewhere out in the bush.

This month, on the 8th, the Ithumba orphans’ original wild friend, the adult bull we named “Rafiki”, again put in an appearance at the Stockade water trough accompanied by 2 wild friends, and later joined the Juniors for a short time out in the bush. He joined the orphans again at their noon mudbath on the l0th and again spent a short time browsing amongst them before peeling off and going his own way.

Due to the absence of fresh water out in the bush, the Stockade trough has been heavily utilized by wild elephants on a daily basis, sometimes as many as 20 or 30 gathering there to drink and draining it regularly several times a day and always during the night. Whereas previously only bulls turned up to drink, ;now the cow herds are beginning to get sufficient confidence to take advantage of the Stockade supply. Every day when the Juniors emerge from their Night Stockades in the mornings, there are usually wild elephants waiting for the water to be turned back on. On the 8th mischievous Loijuk tried to impress her peers by mock charging the wild visitors to show her displeasure, but the wild elephants were not impressed, and merely regarded her with disdain! So popular is the Stockade water trough with the wild elephants, that the Borehole that feeds it is taking the strain. The Trust now has permission to sink another borehole near the Imenti waterhole, which will provide an alternative source of water for both the orphans and the wild community during the long hot dry seasons and relieve the pressure on the existing supply.

On the 1st the Keepers were surprised to see ten wild dogs drinking at the Stockade trough rather than the usual four. Special mention is also made of a spectacular elephant Dusting Concert” on the 15th when having enjoyed a mudbath all together, all 31 orphaned elephants took loose powdery earth up into their trunks, and sprayed it in the air in unison as they strolled off. The orphans themselves number only 30 but the extra one is Yatta’s wild recruit, “Mgeni”.

The Ithumba Diary is always very enlightening, for it illustrates elephant behaviour as never before. The Trust is very proud to have been able to document such important and very human aspects of elephant social behaviour.

August 2009 day to day

01 Aug

Sian led the Keeper Dependent youngsters out to feed, having all enjoyed a drink at the Stockade trough. Soon after they left, happily trumpeting, rumbling and knocking down small shrubs as a sign of excitement, l0 wild dogs came to the Stockade trough to drink. The day turned hot, so the orphans enjoyed a spectacular mudbath, Sidai, Lualeni, Chyulu, Loijuk and Naserian proving the main stars. They were joined later at the mudbath by Wendi and her satellites, and later still by Yatta and the others at the Imenti Area. The entire orphaned herd then headed back to the Stockades, where 4 adult wild elephant cows and two small calves also turned up for a drink.

sian, chyulu & lenana

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