Keepers' Diaries, October 2023

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Kaluku Neonate Unit

October brought the arrival of a tiny new addition to our orphan family: Spencer the bushbaby! He was orphaned as a newborn, so each day with us brings new discoveries. We were reminded of this when we first presented him with a cricket. He was initially terrified of the little insect, but soon came to realise they are his favourite delicacy!

What these small, saucer-eyed primates lack in size, they make up for in personality. In fact, Spencer is a very demanding little charge. He spends all day resting in his bedroom, a cosy wooden pitcher with a tomato red blanket inside, which is perched inside a larger enclosure. Come night, however, he springs into action. Spencer needs entertainment, action, and attention — and lots of it. If anyone dares use a phone, tablet, or television in his presence, the bush baby leaps atop the screen and clings there until it has been turned off. It’s a very effective way to monitor our screen time!

The orphaned elephants:

This month, we introduced little Natibu to our foster program. He joined our Kaluku herd back in March, after he was found stuck in a manhole on community land. His little body was wedged into the small, subterranean space, with only the top of his head visible. Understandably, the terrifying ordeal left him traumatised. For a long time, Natibu was claustrophobic inside his stable and shied away from any small spaces. We took cues from him, letting him know he was loved and supported, without forcing him outside his comfort zone.

But now, Natibu is a changed elephant. His bright-eyed, wide-eared little face is the first to greet us in the morning, peeking out of his stable from beneath his colourful hung blanket, which he loves so much. One might initially think he is a reserved elephant, but he actually has a fiery little personality and can really hold his own.

That’s a good thing, given that Natibu’s Kaluku peer, stable block neighbour, mostly friend and occasional enemy is none other than Mwinzi! We always remark that Mwinzi is the coolest little elephant we have ever met, but he can also be quite headstrong and spoiled. Natibu knows how to stand up to his firebrand of a friend — and of equal importance, he knows when to walk away.

Natibu has adopted Mayan as his honorary big brother. He couldn’t have picked a better role model; Mayan is gentle, polite, and kind to everyone he meets. We notice how patient and attentive he is towards Natibu, as if he realises that the young bull needs an older mentor.

With that said, Mayan is also a growing bull — which means he has lots of energy to expel! Luckily, he has the perfect playmate in Vaarti. These bulls are evenly sized and best friends. Vaarti shares Mayan’s gentlemanly disposition, which means that even their most spirited sparring matches end peacefully. We were reminded of this one afternoon. While the rest of the herd enjoyed a long, luxurious wallow, Mayan and Vaarti charged, clashed, and crashed their way through the bush, as they tried to determine who was strongest. Things came to a crescendo at the manure pile. They were like two opposing armies, fighting for control of a strategic fort. First Vaarti gained some ground, then Mayan. After a battle fought by inches, Vaarti managed to claim the top of the manure pile — but rather than gloat, he rolled down to Mayan’s side and the two boys returned to the mud bath as friends.

Continuing what we saw last month, Manda is growing up quickly. When the rest of the herd is gathered as a group, be it playing or browsing together, he can often be found off to the side, pointedly doing his own thing. This isn’t because he doesn’t enjoy their company, but rather because he wants to exert his independence. We often see this with growing bulls, particularly those with strong characters, like Manda.

Manda is generally well-behaved around Mwinzi and Natibu, but he doesn’t spoil his ‘little brothers’ as the other orphans do. Sometimes, the Keepers turn around to find that Manda has cheekily half-climbed atop Mwinzi’s stout back, or he has used his trunk to push Natibu deeper into the mud. He doesn’t mean any harm; he is just keen to remind everyone that he is the biggest and strongest bull in the Kaluku herd!

On the subject of growth… Just when we think Mwinzi’s tummy can’t possibly get any rounder, he goes and proves us otherwise! It’s hard to believe that the all-but-dead, emaciated elephant we rescued a year ago is now such a healthy, corpulent young bull. We also recently noticed two tiny tusks protruding from Mwinzi’s trunk base — further proof that our darling little boy is growing up.

Rokka is the only girl in the Kaluku big orphan herd, but she is no shrinking violet. Last month was all about her ‘jailbreaking’ hijinks: She cleverly worked out how to unlock her gate at night and started taking nocturnal field trips to visit her friend. Kaluku’s welder was given the unique assignment of fashioning a Rokka-proof lock. While his innovation kept our cunning girl secure at night, Rokka then decided that her room was not at all to her liking. She started pacing around and around, expressing her displeasure at her accommodations.

And of course, we listened. After some deliberation, we decided to swap Rokka and Mayan’s stockades. Mayan’s bedroom is in the quietest corner of the compound. It also shares a side with Vaarti, who has always been one of Rokka’s closest friends. We knew Mayan wouldn’t mind the switch; he is a very curious elephant and would appreciate that Rokka’s bedroom is more centrally located. This room change only happened at the end of the month, so time will tell if it passes muster for Rokka!

Apollo the orphaned rhino:

Last month marked Apollo’s move to Rhino Base, his own personal reintegration unit in Tsavo East National Park. From this secure unit, he will continue to build his independence until he is ready to reclaim his place in the wild.

But nothing happens quickly when it comes to rhinos. They treasure routine and abhor the unknown. For that reason, we had to be careful not to present him with too much, too soon. For the month of October, Apollo stuck to his open-air boma. This spacious, double-sided stockade compound — one side for sleeping and resting, another for mud bathing and playing — gave him plenty of space to acclimate to his new home.

Meanwhile, we continued to ‘Apollo-ise’ his adjacent wandering grounds. Venturing into this 50-acre patch, which is secured by a 10-strand electric fence to keep out predators, will be Apollo’s next step. Using piles of his dung, the team has diligently created a network of middens throughout the wandering grounds, which will help Apollo recognise it as his new territory. [In time, Apollo will go beyond the fenced boundaries and into Tsavo, but again, things happen very gradually with rhinos.]

Thus, this month was a time of transition for Apollo. Day and night, he remains accompanied by two of his favourite Keepers from Kaluku. They’re spoiling Apollo even more than they usually do, giving him lots of freshly cut sugarcane — a favourite treat which Apollo devours, his eyes closed in satisfaction. It has been comforting to see how Apollo has really embraced his new home; he is clearly thriving there. It’s been very hot in this corner of Tsavo, so he seems very content lazing his days away, napping in the shade and indulging in squelchy mud baths.

Early next month, we will guide Apollo into this next step: venturing into the wandering grounds, which will mark his first real foray into Tsavo life.

Twiggy the orphaned giraffe:

Twiggy, our gentle giraffe, operates on her own schedule. She is let out of her stockade first thing in the morning and then makes a plan for the day, driven by menu: As we wait for the rains to arrive, vegetation is increasingly sparse on the ground here at Kaluku — but Twiggy has an advantage. Her long neck can easily access the treetops, plucking tiny leaves that will remain firmly out of reach for the elephants.

Peter, the Keeper who looks after the smaller orphans, says that Twiggy has become a valued assistant. Nini, Lana, and Daza the gazelles tend to follow their tall friend. Whenever Peter needs to gather the troops, he simply looks for Twiggy — and sure enough, the little trio of gazelles is sure to be found at her feet!

While the rest of the orphan herd returns home for the evening at 5 o’clock, Twiggy makes her own bedtime. She seems to enjoy the twilight hours, when the Kaluku compound is starting to settle down for the night. It is common to hear, “Twiggy! Twiggy!” as dusk is falling — reminding our independent-minded girl that even giraffes have a bedtime!

Apollo in his stockade
Apollo in his new stockade
Kaluku's elephant herd
Manda dust bathing
Manda and Rokka milk time
Mwinzi and Natibu early morning
Mwinzi, Natibu, and Vaarti
Natibu peeking
Natibu, Manda, Mayan, and Vaarti at the back
Our Kaluku elephant herd
Natibu outside the stables
Natibu, Toto and Mwinzi
Twiggy doing her thing
Manda at mud bath
Young bulls: Manda, Mayan, and Vaarti
Mayan, with Natibu behind
Mayan, Natibu, and Rokka
Mayan and Vaarti
Mayan holds the upper ground on Vaarti
Mayan and Vaarti sparring
Mwinzi in the mud bath
Mwinzi and Natibu
Vaarti with eyes on Mwinzi and Natibu
Rokka taking a dip!
Twiggy browsing
Milk time for Vaarti
Spencer the bush baby, busy eating!