Umani Springs is our most recent Relocation Unit, just a year and a half old, primarily built in the gentle environment of Kibwezi Forest to provide a haven and a wild life for some of the orphans who remain slightly compromised by injuries - for example Murera and Sonje, or for our little albino baby boys Jasiri and Faraja whose paler skin would suffer from the fierce sunlight of Tsavo where there is also little shade during the long dry seasons. We knew that Kibwezi forest would be a special place for our compromised orphans to live and slowly assimilate back into living a wild life, but we never imagined it would transform into quite such a paradise.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust secured a concession of this 20,000 acre Kibwezi ground water forest from the Kenya Forest Service charged with preserving, protecting and managing this unique environment as a public/private partnership initiative. At the time when this 35 year concession agreement was secured six years ago, Kibwezi forest was under threat due to massive logging and charcoal extraction, livestock incursions and rampant bush meat poaching. Today with the forest now electrically fenced and open along one boundary into the giant Chyulu National Park, thanks to the David Sheldrick Widlife Trust’s vision for the area, all human illegal activity within the forest has been halted. The difference this has made in such a short time is extraordinary. Wild elephants now remain within the forest throughout the year with transitory wild herds constantly traversing through moving between the forest that provides a wonderful dry season refuge, into the mist forests of the Chyulu Hills National Park and beyond to Tsavo West and even Amboseli National Parks. Within the Chyulu National Park are black rhino, Greater Kudu (recently sighted) and numerous other wildlife species. Bushbuck are particularly abundant within the forest, which also harbours duiker, dikdik, klipspringer and lesser kudu and numerous buffalo. Leopards, Serval cats and Caracals make this their home as well. Gin clear water percolating from the ground lava create a series of beautiful springs filled with fish, terrapins and the odd lazy crocodile. The forest is a very special place and it is a privilege for the Trust to be charged with its protection and management. The Forest is also home to Kenya’s most plentiful and unique butterfly population, many species endemic to the area. At our Umani Spring Relocation Facility we currently have nine young elephant orphans, with room for more to join them in the future.
The Trust runs a unique and very beautiful Eco Lodge called “Umani Springs lodge” within the forest - a property that one books exclusively as a “home away from home” experience, proceeds from which go towards the Concession fees payable to the Kenya Forest Service, and help towards ongoing maintenance of the now 57 km electric fence which protects the communities from wildlife depredation of their crops. It also funds resident anti-poaching teams to patrol the area and helps towards the ongoing management of the forest.
After bountiful end of year rains, the forest canopy is thick, flowers and lilies abundant attended by more butterflies than imaginable which have provided endless entertainment for elephant orphans Jasiri, Zongoloni and Ngasha, who never tire of chasing them with trumpets and leg spins, trying to reach them with flailing trunks.
In the absence of Balguda, who was transported back to the Nairobi Nursery after ill health plagued him at Umani, Ziwa is the baby of the Umani orphaned herd, much loved by older orphans Murera and Sonje. Sonje is never far from him and the two spend endless hours playing together. Sonje is incredibly patient with all the babies, prepared to allow them to take rides on her back, and resorting to lying down so that they can clamber all over in climbing games. Instinctively the herd knows to leave Murera alone, due to her stiff leg which makes riding and clambering games out of bounds.
Lima Lima continues to be the busy one, dashing here and there to ensure that her Keepers are safe and leading the group with Murera’s approval. She is quick to point out hidden threats in the forest, such as the presence of buffalos, and lurking unfriendly wild elephants. One day this month the orphans pointed their trunks up into the high branches of a Yellow Fever tree where a lazy leopard lay draped over a branch fast asleep. Sensibly the group moved away so as not to disturb the slumbering cat.
While some wild elephant herds remain in the forest during the west season, they were not in numbers seen before the rains broke, many having moved further afield now that ground water was so abundant. Some mothers with tiny calves remained within the area, as did some wild bulls, coming into regular contact with the orphans.
At mid-month the Umani orphans were visited by a very big and extremely friendly bull who was unperturbed by the presence of the Keepers. We are noticing that wild bulls are becoming more and more trusting and comfortable, understanding that the human escorts of our orphans are not poachers but instead elephant friends. Wild herds visit the Night Stockades on many nights, enjoying the clear spring water in the trough and also savouring the salt lick as well. During a thunder storm one night, when lightning was particularly frequent, a wild herd became extremely alarmed, trumpeting and crashing around breaking down bushes. This greatly disturbed Murera who clambered on the bracing bars of her Stockade and inadvertently cut her trunk on the iron roofing sheets of her stockade shelter. However her trunk wound is healing well and thankfully there have been no other nights of weather pandemonium to unsettle the orphans.
Within Keeper Phillip’s daily diary you will find many more stories - of escaping from buffalo herds, frights from a savannah monitor lizard and how a tree squirrel running along the back of Murera ended up with the ride of his life!