Keepers' Diaries, May 2004

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Voi Reintegration Unit

In late afternoon of 12th May, we received a message from Save the Elephants in Samburu National Reserve that a young elephant calf had been seen trailing the wild herds, but was being constantly rejected, so it was obviously another milk dependent orphan in need of help. Even when it tried to cross the Uaso Nyiro river with a wild herd, one member of the group was seen pushing it under water, which would appear un-elephant-like behaviour towards a needy baby! The calf was estimated to be between 4 and 6 months old and was, we were told, in the process of being captured.

In late afternoon of 12th May, we received a message from Save the Elephants in Samburu National Reserve that a young elephant calf had been seen trailing the wild herds, but was being constantly rejected, so it was obviously another milk dependent orphan in need of help. Even when it tried to cross the Uaso Nyiro river with a wild herd, one member of the group was seen pushing it under water, which would appear un-elephant-like behaviour towards a needy baby! The calf was estimated to be between 4 and 6 months old and was, we were told, in the process of being captured.

KWS has, apparently, received reports of recent poaching in the region. However, the theory held by Save the Elephant personnel is that the calf could have been separated from its mother and herd by being swept downstream by floodwaters, so the true circumstances that led to it becoming an orphan must remain unclear.

There was just enough daylight time left on the 12th May to be able to bring the calf back to the Nairobi Nursery that evening, so a plane and a Vet, plus two Keepers and all the capture paraphernalia was hurriedly scrambled, along with the BBC Natural History Film crew currently here to start the shooting of “Elephant Diaries”, a series modelled on the highly successful “Big Cat Diary”. Of course, an orphan rescue was high on their “Wish List” for the series which will entail a full year of filming in 3 different locations – the Nairobi Nursery, Emily’s group in Voi, and the newly established Northern Area Ithumba orphan unit, currently used only by “Imenti” as and when he feels the need to check up on his human family.

When the rescue plane landed in Samburu, the calf had still not been captured and was still trailing wild herds, of which there were many in the area. Furthermore, another BBC Film crew had been filming events surrounding the calf so in the wake of frantic phone negotiations with the Charter Company, it was agreed that the plane and the Rescue Team could overnight in Samburu as best they could in order to be able to capture the elephant during the night and return it to Nairobi first thing in the morning. It was feared that were it left overnight, it may not survive the hyaenas.

The actual rescue was, apparently, somewhat fraught. There was much confusion with vehicles and blazing headlamps trying to focus on the target, people rushing hither and thither, and excited elephants dashing about in the dark, trumpeting and screaming. As the calf was finally being overpowered and loaded into the back of the truck, a huge bull emerged from the shadows in response to its distressed bellows, and the capture vehicle just managed to make a hasty get-away in time! However, the KWS Vet and our team deserved full marks for being professional and efficient. Once aboard, the calf was lightly sedated to calm it, given milk and rehydrants and with three Keepers in attendance was incarcerated in a small office overnight. For the Keepers, this was a far from comfortable night, as they were buffeted around by what turned out to be a strong 6 month old female!

Those of us back at base likewise spent a restless night, wondering how things were going in far-away Samburu National Reserve. First thing in the morning, the news came that they had the calf, and the plane would be arriving at Wilson Airport in Nairobi at 8.15 a.m. Unsure about the actual size of the new arrival, both a Stockade, and a Stable were prepared, and at 9 a.m. the vehicle carrying the sedated calf drew in. Lying on the rescue tarpaulin she was already regaining consciousness, and we decided to put her in Tomboi’s night stable, which is next door to that of Wendi. Traumatised and still “wild”, it took two Keepers all their time to try and restrain the baby, who was trying to climb out but she took more milk and water, and gradually Keeper Julius and Stephen worked their magic. Having consulted our Samburu Keepers, it was decided that the calf be called “Naserian” – a Samburu girl child’s name denoting “a lucky one”.

Following the noon mudbath, the other Nursery elephants came to meet her, extending their trunks to touch her in greeting through the stable partition. She was overjoyed to know that she was not alone, Selengai and Wendi being particularly attentive, and afterwards the newcomer, who is only slightly taller than Sunyei, visibly settled down, and, for the first time, fell into a fitful sleep. Amazingly, by nightfall this totally wild elephant was sucking the fingers of her Keepers, taking milk eagerly from a bottle, and even enjoying the company of her human Attendants, much to the amazement of the film crew. That night she slept soundly, her little trunk reaching through the separation to touch Wendi next door. And, first thing in the morning, she was out and about with the others, all documented for “Elephant Diaries” – truly the same mini miracle we have witnessed many times before with orphans who have had the input of other elephants! Any bystander would not have been able to tell which elephant was the newcomer who had arrived just a day ago!

Napasha was particularly caring and considerate, comforting her, touching her gently, and making sure that she felt loved. Naserian was immediately absorbed into the mini Nursery herd, and taking her cue from them, hurried to the noon mudbath that day, where she enjoyed a mudwallow, and even joined the others in greeting all the visitors, something that never ceases to amaze us!

All the Nursery orphans thrived in May, which is surely the loveliest month of the year here in Nairobi. By month’s end Naserian was a very popular, gentle, and loving member of the group, and apart from a sprained foreleg and a slight limp, (probably as a result of the capture and chase) continues to do well.

Sunyei, and little Naserian will take over the Mini Matriarchal responsibilities, keeping Madiba and Ndomot in line. All are a very close little unit and although they will undoubtedly sorely miss the larger elephants when they leave, they will have each other for company and in the fullness of time will join Wendi, Tomboi, Napasha, Selengai, Olmalo and Taita in the North. Ndomot is “the clinging vine” of the group, always attached to a Keeper, whilst Madiba is much more independent, and confident. Sunyei and Naserian are both of a very mild temperament who will one day emulate Emily and Aitong in character.

The Rhinos:- Little Shida grows apace in true rhino fashion, and is the easiest little rhino we have ever had. He is quite happy to follow any Keeper wearing the special coat which carries the scent he identifies with as “food” and “mother” with days spent doing the rounds of the dungpiles and urinals of the other rhino inmates of Nairobi Park, racing up and down his special “beats”, being fondled and rubbed by his Keepers, which always leaves him in a delicious coma of collapse, and avoiding meeting boisterous Makosa out in the bush.

Makosa usually returns to his Stockade in the evenings for a hand-out of Copra and sometimes actually sleeps in the Stockade most of the night. Magnum often turns up with a large wild cow and her calf, with whom he has struck up a friendship, and is as gentle and as friendly as ever and not nearly so volatile as Makosa. All our rhinos look in wonderful condition, and will soon be enjoying upgraded first class Night Stockades to replace the old enclosures which have suffered termite damage.

Tsavo Orphans:- There have been several exciting events this month – the reappearance of 16 year old “Dika”, one of our now wild “Big Boys” looking huge and magnificent and dwarfing the entire group, including Emily. Dika has been absent for many moons, and his presence caused immense excitement amongst all the elephants, their Keepers, and the BBC “Elephant Diaries” filming team, because he was so impressive, but yet as gentle and as friendly as ever. It was difficult to recall him as a broken hearted baby of 3 months, covered in thorns when he was brought in, who grieved so deeply for his lost elephant family that we feared for his sanity. Seeing him as he is today is, indeed, a reward for all our years of hard work. All the smaller orphans who had not met him before enjoyed touching his huge body gingerly as he lay in the mudbath and he greeted his human friends politely and with a gentle dignity that was touching.

He mounted Emily on several occasions, on the 3rd, (which caused Aitong to charge around screaming), again on the 5th, and 6th, but suffered some competition when a large wild bull joined the group on the 7th. However, thereafter he spent a lot of time with the orphans, joining them out in the bush, mounting Emily as and when he could, returning to the Stockades with them and joining them at the noon mudbath. On the 13th Laikipia and Edie followed him when he left the group after mudbath, returning half an hour later. Later.

It would appear that Aitong may also have come into season this month, because Dika mounted her on the 31st, but was chased off by a larger wild bull, who took over. He, in turn was chased off by another even higher ranking bull who “dominated the whole scene up until the orphans went back to the Stockades in the evening”. The mating of both Emily and Aitong this month has, indeed, made momentous ripples amongst elephants and Keepers alike.

Lissa and her two wild-born babies have also visited our group along with their wild friends, bringing with them Uaso, who is now an independent 8 year old, who often travels with her. He, too, has spent a good deal of time with the orphans this month, possibly because he is now at the age when he is not so welcome amongst the female units. The smaller orphans found him somewhat daunting, because whenever they approached, he tried to mount them, but Dika keeps him in line! When he tried to mount weakling “Mweiga”, the Keepers had to go to her rescue.

It is still fairly green around Voi, so food remains plentiful, and the natural waterholes holding water, although the country is drying into autumn colours as another long dry season sets in.

A great deal of sleepless nights and in-depth consultation with the Keepers has been necessary concerning “The Elephant Moves”, i.e. about which facility the Nursery elephants should be moved to and which elephants should be taken from Emily’s group to join Imenti in the North. Originally, it was felt that 6 bulls and 6 females from Natumi’s age set should be moved to Ithumba, and that the 6 older Nairobi Nursery elephants should join Emily’s group in Voi, but having discussed things at length between ourselves and all the Keepers, plans have again changed. It was felt that moving Natumi’s age group would cause too much disruption to Emily and Aitong; that Emily might turn aggressive and later possibly try to make good her losses by trying to take away calves which are currently under the care of her Nannie, Aitong, something that would cause dissention between these two cows, who, if pregnant, would need each other as well as some of the older females. It would not be in the interests of the entire group to disrupt the current harmony of the existing Matriarch/Nannie set-up.

In the end it was decided that it would be wiser to move the 6 Nursery elephants to Ithumba in the North rather than to Voi and that smaller females of Kinna’s age (namely, Kinna, Mulika, Nasalot and Yatta) should join them up there, since these individuals shared a strong bond of friendship with each other and would not be so sorely missed by Emily. Rather than move Natumi sized bulls up, whom the younger cows would not be able to discipline, we should target 6 of the younger bulls of the same age set as the cows for the move to the North, but only once the cows and Nursery elephants had settled in, and any teething logistical problems ironed out. Unhappily, the rains of April/May have not been sufficient to fill the storage tanks that have been installed in the North, so water is an issue, because the borehole water is one third salty, which could upset stomachs not accustomed to such a strong salinity.

Aside from the discussions about The Big Move, there has been quite a lot of interaction with wild herds this month, on the 8th, l0th, 18th, 20th, 21st, and 31st, with wild herds accompanying Lissa and her family. Interaction with other species have included Aitong and Sosian chasing off two dikdiks, Mpala, Seraa and Irima ganging up to chase off 2 waterbucks and Natumi, Ilingwezi and Sally doing the same to some baboons. As usual, the young bulls have enjoyed tussling and trunk wrestling with each other, enjoying chasing games with each other and the young cows of their age set and, of course, wonderful noon mudbaths in the large rain-filled pools where the elephants can actually submerge themselves. Still very evident is the great love that Sweet Sally has for Aitong, the possessiveness of Loisaba towards Emily and the joy with which members of the group welcome back others left behind i.e. when Solango and Mweya found themselves left behind, and Thoma, Irima, and Sally went to greet and reassure them on their return. Natumi, Mulika, Nasalot, Edie, Icholta and Ilingwezi are all firm friends and Natumi much loved by Emily and all the group. Tsavo is still the pampered, somewhat spoilt pet of Emily, who enjoys special protection and whom Nyiro, Mukwaju and Irima would like to “unseat”. Solango, Mpala and Burra are close friends and competition for dominance still exists along with the bond of friendship amongst the bigger bulls, namely Laikipia, Lolokwe, Salama with sometimes even little Morani trying his luck! Of all of them, Laikipia is the most independent, and very gentle, who promises one day to emulate Dika in temperament. Mweya is much better behaved – no longer shoving around the humans, and it is, indeed, a great joy to witness our 31 elephants romping around and enjoying the green season of Tsavo, when all the flowers bloom, food and water is adequate and butterflies of every hue adorn the landscape, congregating to take moisture from the elephant droppings and turning them into beautiful ground ornaments!

May 2004 day to day

01 May

Dika joined the orphans at the noon mudbath. After a wonderful bath, he picked up a dry stick and scratched between his forelegs, which the other orphans watched very closely.