Keepers' Diaries, March 2023

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Voi Reintegration Unit

At the height of the drought, our Voi team was called to support weekly — even daily — orphan rescues. Although we got a bit of rain in November and December, this sector of Tsavo remains very dry. As a result, the orphan rescues have not entirely abated.

The month began with yet another rescue. This time, it was a young elephant who had been found on his own close to Lake Jipe. They immediately packed the necessary equipment and set off to rescue the baby. On arrival, they set up a drip, administered medication, loaded the elephant into the pickup, and drove him back to the Voi stockades. The baby rested overnight before being airlifted to our Nairobi Nursery the following morning.

We were thrilled to have a visit from ex-orphan Laikipia on 4th March. The 24-year-old bull strolled over to the water trough and then settled down to feast on dairy cubes. He remained outside the stockades until dusk, cutting a very impressive figure against the setting sun. Although he is a semi-regular visitor, the younger orphans can’t help but hero-worship their enormous ‘big brother.’

Lemeki remains a one-woman show, happiest when holding court with the Keepers. We know she will make elephant friends at her own pace — and we are happy to report that she is already showing interest in relationships with her own kind. This month, the Keepers witnessed her hanging out with gentle Lasayen. The pair trunk touched each other regularly as they foraged for green shoots. 

Given the dry conditions, most of the orphans are prudently all-consumed by the mission to find ample greenery to eat during the day. However, boys will be boys! While the others are heads down, focused on browsing, Ndotto, Ngilai, Emoli, Murit, and Lasayen are easily absorbed in wrestling matches. Sometimes, it’s a drawn-out match, other times, it’s a quick sparring session. 

Suswa is such a showboat. She strikes the most incredible poses — and she knows that she almost always has an appreciative audience! On the rare occasion that she doesn’t, she pulls out all the stops to get her friends’ attention. One afternoon, she started rolling around on the ground in a rather impressive manner. It quickly became clear that she was trying to entice Kilulu, Hildana, Akina, and Ashanti. Unfortunately, her efforts were in vain, as her young friends were intent on heading back to the mud wallow for a swim. However, she can always rely on her friend Embu to appreciate her talent shows!

On 7th March, the Keepers woke up to a wonderful surprise: Ex-orphans Kihari, Naipoki, Mbirikani, Arruba, and Mudanda were waiting outside the stockades! Although they are leading fully wild lives, the girls decided to visit their old human-elephant family. Greeting their former carers, they followed the Keepers around as they spread out lucerne and range cubes. Arruba stood outside the gate waiting for her little friend Pika Pika to emerge. Everyone had a wonderful time together, catching up and sharing stories. Newbies Itinyi and Epiya were a bit taken aback by these bigger visitors, flaring their ears and backing away from the ex-orphans, but calmed down in due course. 

As it turned out, it was a week of special visitors. Two days later, a wild elephant family appeared at the mud bath. Sagala made up the advance welcoming committee, rushing up to greet the newcomers. When it was time to part ways, Itinyi and Epiya naively tried to follow the wild herd, but Mbegu and the Keepers adeptly prevented them from doing so. Mbegu calmed the newcomers with rumbles and trunk touches after the Keepers shepherded the little runaways back to the mud wallow.

10th March heralded in even more visitors. Following the arrival of Kihari, Naipoki, Mbirikani, Arruba, and Mudanda a few days ago, even more ex-orphans arrived at the stockades. Matriarchs Edie and Mweya, their calves Eden, Eco, Enzo and Mwitu, and nannies Kenia, Panda, Lentili, and Tahri wandered in just after dawn, accompanied by a wild young bull. The ex-orphans joined the dependent herd for a breakfast of dairy pellets and lucerne and then spent the day browsing with them at the foot of Msinga Hill.

That evening, as the dependent orphans were tucked up in their dormitories for the night, the ex-orphans milled around outside the compound. Although they are leading fully wild lives, it is lovely to see how ‘at home’ they feel in the place where they were raised. Mweya napped on an earth pile while baby Mwitu hung out with Lentili. The long-suffering nanny was prevented from sleeping by the little elephant climbing all over her, full of affection and fun! Nearby, Edie had another snack as baby Enzo cavorted around. Eventually, the well-fed visitors also settled down to sleep.

We think of Pika Pika as the spoiled ‘little sister’ of the Voi herd, but she seems to be growing up! One morning, she was being sweetly protective of little Busara. She intervened when Thamana — who is reluctant to relinquish his role as the darling baby — tried to push the younger orphan around. The Keepers were proud to see this new, nurturing side to Pika Pika.

Perhaps more than any other, our Voi herd is in a state of flux. Recent months have seen older orphans reclaim their place in the wild, promoting others to the position of herd leaders. However, Mbegu has proved to be an incredible stabiliser. At the end of the day, everyone defers to her. We were reminded of this when Emoli, Lemeki, and Tamiyoi led a portion of the herd out to the browsing fields one morning. Akina and Kilulu tagged along at the end, undecided as to whether to stay or go, while others remained behind with the ex-orphans. When Mbegu decided it was time to join the trio, many of the young orphans trotted along behind her. It just goes to show how everyone respects her leadership.

Mbegu may be the matriarch, but she is supported by an incredible team of nannies. Godoma, Sagala, Tamiyoi, Tagwa, and even Pika Pika are very diligent about the younger orphans, keeping them together by standing around them. Sagala and Tagwa have a soft spot for young Juni, and often whisk her away for private browsing sessions. We have also witnessed a special bond developing between Sagala and Dabida. On a particularly cool, clear morning, little Dabida was sticking close to Sagala, enjoying the warmth of the older elephant. Whenever Sagala took a few steps, Dabida did too, leaning into her friend and rubbing her head against Sagala’s neck.

Voi is full of mud bath stars, but Tamiyoi usually prefers to tiptoe on the edge, gracefully syphoning trunkfulls of water onto herself. One afternoon, however, she was the runaway star of the mud bath. She and her best friend Tagwa enjoyed a long, dramatic swim, full of flailing trunks and swinging legs.

Murit is known as a reserved elephant — but that doesn’t mean he is without wiles! Towards the end of the month, Murit picked up a table-sized amount of lucerne and deposited it on top of his head, just in case the food ran out before he was full. Opposite him, Pika Pika did exactly the same thing, putting such a huge amount of lucerne on her head that it covered her eyes. Sensible nanny Godoma stood next to baby Baraka, watching her friends go about their nonsense.

March closed with a memorable afternoon. As the Voi herd converged upon the mud bath, they were met by about 40 wild elephants. A wonderful meeting of wild elephants and dependent orphans ensued. Little Seri even boldly tried to suckle one of the largest females, perhaps conjuring memories of her own mother. These wild interactions are so important for our orphans, laying the groundwork for their future lives as part of Tsavo’s elephant population.

March 2023 day to day

01 Mar

On a cold gray morning, the orphans waited patiently for their doors to be opened before plodding out of the stockades to greet each other and enjoy their breakfast. Suswa stretched her body (almost elegantly!) against a large rock inside the compound, waving her trunk in excitement as the lucerne arrived. Close by, Lemeki and Embu rolled around on the dust piles, hosing themselves with soothing soil as they enjoyed a morning dust bath. Mbegu was tending the youngest orphans who were snacking on range cubes at the feeding trough. As usual, Godoma was standing close to Baraka, looking after her favorite little boy.

Before long, the elephants meandered up Msinga Hill, maneuvering their way over the rocks to browse near the baobab tree water hole. During milk feeding time in the afternoon, Ashanti gulped down her bottle of milk and then ran from one friend to the next in search of an extra bottle. The Keepers ensured that she was not successful in her quest to drink someone else’s milk! As the day was too cold for swimming, the orphans wandered off into some thick bush to the south of the mud wallow to continue browsing.

Suswa stretching

Baraka left and Godoma