Keepers' Diaries, March 2007

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Ithumba Reintegration Unit

It has been a rewarding month for the Ithumba orphans, with one very significant event that took place on the 27th when a wild cow and her two calves visited the orphans at 7.30 p.m. on a bright moonlight night. The cow first drank at the Stockade trough, and then positioning herself just l0 meters from the Stockade fence, facing the orphans. Nasalot rumbled, and was desperate to make contact, pleading with the Keepers to open the gates and let her and the others out, and even trying to dig underneath the wire.. However, lions are also frequent nocturnal visitors around the Stockades these days, even sometimes drinking at the trough, so the Keepers dare not oblige for fear that the wild cow would take the youngsters off, putting them at risk from lions. However, the fact that this wild cow has come and obviously communicated with the Ithumba orphans is indicative that soon wild contact will be possible. The next morning, the orphans followed the tracks of the wild group, but eventually gave up.

It has been a rewarding month for the Ithumba orphans, with one very significant event that took place on the 27th when a wild cow and her two calves visited the orphans at 7.30 p.m. on a bright moonlight night. The cow first drank at the Stockade trough, and then positioning herself just l0 meters from the Stockade fence, facing the orphans. Nasalot rumbled, and was desperate to make contact, pleading with the Keepers to open the gates and let her and the others out, and even trying to dig underneath the wire.. However, lions are also frequent nocturnal visitors around the Stockades these days, even sometimes drinking at the trough, so the Keepers dare not oblige for fear that the wild cow would take the youngsters off, putting them at risk from lions. However, the fact that this wild cow has come and obviously communicated with the Ithumba orphans is indicative that soon wild contact will be possible. The next morning, the orphans followed the tracks of the wild group, but eventually gave up.

The Diary again illustrates relationship bonding, i.e. between Naserian, Lualeni and Kora, all of whom were very close during their Nursery period and are now inseparable at Ithumba. Little Orok is still the favourite “baby” of Nasalot, Olmalo remains Yatta’s special youngster and Selengai is Mulika’s chosen one. Of all the four Matriarchal elephants at Ithumba (i.e. those that were moved from the Voi Unit to oversee the babies), only Kinna has not selected one to be her favourite, but it is becoming evident that she enjoys sharing Orok’s affections with Nasalot, often feeding close by him. However, at such times, Selengai is sent along too, just to ensure that Kinna does not usurp Nasalot’s position as the surrogate “mother” of Orok.

The quest for identity and rank is repeatedly illustrated, young bulls testing their strength against each other in pushing bouts, which sometimes degenerate into a serious battle. It is then that the females step in to restore order and good behaviour by separating warring parties. Napasha, who is the oldest Boy, has been eager to try and get top-sides of Kinna, (one of the female Big Four) but so far has been denied victory, either by Kinna winning the bout, or whenever she looks as though she might be losing ground, by emerging victorious following backup from the other Big Females.

Both the younger bulls and also the younger females vie for the privilege of leading the column to and from the feeding grounds, or to and from the mudbath, something that is obviously a great treat. Also, the Ithumba unit (currently numbering 22) often splits into two distinct groups during browsing sessions, with either Wendi or Sunyei leading the younger set to a different location, acting as Sub Matriarchs, whilst Yatta and the older elephants feed elsewhere. However, they always regroup at a certain point out in the bush in order to proceed to the mudbath venue, or else back to their Stockades in the evening. On one occasion when Naserian was in charge of the younger group and had taken them away, she obviously failed to return on schedule in order to return to the Stockades in the evening. Yatta, Mulika and Nasalot waited out in the bush for her, leaving the others to go ahead, and admonished Naserian when she eventually turned up by “pointing their trunks at her” accusingly, followed by a sharp shove! As the main Matriarch of the group, Yatta never fails to notice the absence of any single member of her herd, long before such an absence is noticed by the Keepers. She will wait for a straggler to catch up, or go in search of a missing member.

There was an occasion in this month’s Diary when Yatta herself went ahead to the mudbath with her group, a fact that escaped the Keepers’ notice, since the bush at Ithumba is very dense, and it is not easy for the Keepers to keep all their charges in sight. Having called Yatta repeatedly without any response, Sunyei once again understood the problem, and immediately again came to the rescue. Following the route that had been taken by Yatta, she led the Keepers to Yatta and the older group, meeting up with them just short of the mudbath. This is not the first time that Sunyei has come to the rescue of her human Keepers when they have lost contact with some of their charges!! Sunyei is a very clever elephant, who even manages to get topsides of Rapsu (who has longer tusks) in a pushing bout simply by using cunning initiatives! Kora is the one member of the group who is not keen on water, and who is always first to vacate the mudbath, or else reluctant to wallow. This is surprising in view of the fact that he hails from an extremely dry and hot part of the world – Kora National Reserve in the far North of Kenya. He and his Nursery Pushing Pal, Buchuma are good friends and spar together often, and Kora is now beginning to test his strength against the bigger boys, such as Tomboi and Rapsu, which is a good sign that his jaw is not troubling him too much!

Another interesting fact, again illustrated in this month’s Diary, is that the elephants recognize specific individuals. The Trust’s Elephant Keepers are rotated regularly around all three of our Orphan Centers, and whenever a new batch turn up, all the elephants immediately notice their presence, and come to give them the once over. They insist on being reassured by the resident Head Keeper at each centre whom the elephants trust and love that newcomers can be viewed as part of the human “family”. This answers one of the questions most often asked by outsiders. “Don’t the elephants, having been hand-reared by humans, end up trusting all humans?” The answer is “No” because they will get another message about most humans from the wild herds, and although they will always love their Keepers, and recognize them even years later, this trust is not extended to strangers.

The Ithumba orphans have had to contend with the proximity of lions this month, who have been drinking at the Stockade water trough and roaring close by, which has left the group decidedly nervous. The Keepers regularly see lion tracks around the Stockade, and in fact the elephants bumped into two on the l8th when they visited a new waterhole. Terrified, the smaller orphans rushed back bellowing to their Keepers who were hurrying to see the cause of their fear and spotted two lions disappearing into the thick bush. Once the older elephants were sure the lions had retreated, they put on a brave demonstration of fury, charging, trumpeting and bashing the bushes. The Keepers immediately decided to change location! On another occasion, the Keepers came across a lioness crossing the road at night when they were going to watch the news at the Park Headquarters. Hardly a night this month has passed without hearing lions roaring.

There have also been two encounters with the four very unpopular resident wild dogs who frequent the vicinity of the Night Stockades, one on the 7th and another on the 11th. Whilst the dogs are apparently becoming accustomed to the elephants and their Keepers, and do not appear unduly alarmed, the elephants remain extremely wary of anything canine! However, the older elephants, Yatta, Nasalot, Mulika, Kinna and Napasha, reinforced by the Sub Matriarchs and the younger bulls always present a united front in demonstrating their loathing, trumpeting, breaking down bushes and charging about.

The Ithumba unit are a very cohesive herd, who have bonded firmly together as a family, and who care for one another, assist one another, protect each other and love one another very deeply. There are no “outsiders” there, Challa, Sidai, Rapsu and Galana, who arrived at Ithumba as strangers to those already in residence, are now fully integrated into one happy and united family. Food is still plentiful at Ithumba, and surface rainwater still lying around, which has been a wonderful bonus for the year 2007. Heavy rain again fell on the 25th, which will keep the country green for a while longer before the long dry season due to begin in June and last until October or November.

March 2007 day to day

01 Mar

Another cloudy morning for the Ithumba orphans, who noticed the presence of new Keepers. Led by Wendi, Selengai and Mulika, all the elephants came to give the newcomers the “once over”, after which the old Keepers ordered them back to browse. At the mudbath Kinna enticed Orok away from Nasalot, and the two fed together for half an hour with Selengai beside Orok to keep an eye on him. After the mudbath Nasalot kept rolling on the ground as though suffering stomach cramps, whereupon Yatta came to take a look. Having communicated together for some minutes, Nasalot got up and together with Yatta wandered off to join the others, shoulder to shoulder. In the evening Sidai enjoyed a pushing exercise with Orok, but Nasalot rapidly came to intervene, making Sidai hurriedly leave Orok with Nasalot. Wendi then teamed up with Sidai to comfort her having witnessed the event. After all the elephants had vacated the mudbath, Mulika returned alone to enjoy sole occupancy, but became scared when an eagle flew overhead.

wendi, mulika & selengai inspect the new keepers

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