Many of the orphans at Umani Springs have faced hardship and heartbreak on another level. For all of us, the unexpected arrival of baby Mwana has been such a gift. She is a living ray of sunshine, and a reminder of why saving one life can lead to so many others.
This month, I would like to focus on Mwana’s mother. Murera’s story is one we have told many times before, but never to such an extent. I have been wanting to share my thoughts about how Mwana came to be, and why I believe she is a gift from the great beyond.
– Angela Sheldrick
“Little hope for recovery.”
“It might be kindest to end her suffering.”
Paraphrasing, these were common refrains among the vets consulted upon rescuing Murera. We were shocked when the young elephant arrived at the Nursery. Our line of work comes with more than its fair share of tragedy, but seeing Murera's struggle was heartbreaking for even the most seasoned veteran.
The year was 2012, at the peak of Kenya’s ivory poaching crisis. Murera began her life as any elephant should, nurtured by her family in the wilds of Meru National Park. That all changed at the tender age of two years old, when she stepped on a poisoned spike trap. A particularly cruel means of poaching, these traps are exactly what they sound like: Poachers embed spikes in a piece of wood, coat the apparatus in a powerful poison, and then bury it on a well-trafficked elephant trail. The victim is physically incapacitated by the trap and further weakened by the poison. After an unimaginably drawn out demise, poachers are able to track them down and steal their ivory.
However, spike traps are as indiscriminate as they are cruel. This particular trap could have caught anything, but it was little Murera who was unlucky enough to cross its path. The spikes ravaged her feet and left her with deep, badly infected wounds. She must have also taken a serious fall, which damaged her hip and severely debilitated her entire hind end.
I will always remember the afternoon that we rescued Murera. We didn’t initially understand the full extent of her injuries – that would come later — but we knew that something was dreadfully wrong. Her little forehead was etched with pain and her body contorted, yet she remained resolutely wild and rebuffed all human help. She clearly knew exactly what species was to blame for her situation.
The day after she arrived at the Nursery, Murera collapsed and had to be put on life support. This gave us the opportunity to conduct a full examination. This was also when many came to the painful, but understandable, conclusion that the kindest course of action would be to euthanise her. This is not a recommendation vets make lightly, but given the gravity of Murera’s injuries, it was difficult to imagine she could recover.
My mother, Daphne Sheldrick, recognised that, sometimes, heartbreakingly, being a custodian can mean making the decision to end an animal’s suffering. However, in Murera, she saw a glimmer of hope. I recall her saying, as she looked upon the calf’s ruined body, “This elephant has a lifespan of upwards of 60 years. Even if healing Murera takes a two-year struggle, it is important we try, as she so wants to live”.
Hers was a hard-won miracle. Every orphan requires intensive care, but Murera was on another level. She was too weak to be sedated, which made cleaning her wounds a challenge when she was still wild as could be. Her Keepers remained by her side day and night, slowly building up trust and showing her another side to humans. When she couldn’t stand on her own, they formed the scaffolding to help her find her strength. When she stopped eating, they coaxed her appetite back with tiny sips of milk and nibbles of greens. Even when she gave up, they refused to concede and coaxed her back from death. Murera became the Trust’s shared mission: She always had cheerleaders clustered around her stockade, human and elephant, voicing their encouragement and letting her know that she wasn’t alone.
My husband Robert had the unenviable task of cleaning Murera’s festering, punctured feet. Outfitted with a backpack filled with saline fluids, her injuries were flushed daily and carefully tended to. The full extent of her hip injury was impossible to ascertain, even with an X-ray apparatus at our disposal. However, it was clearly dire: Murera was unable to remain standing for more than a minute before she was forced to squat on her haunches. For our Keepers, having to witness her contorted body endure so much discomfort, despite our best efforts to elevate her pain, was extremely distressing. We were all guilty of doubting our decision at times, but forced ourselves to focus on the tiny improvements we thought we saw.
One elephant quickly became a sister to Murera. Just ten days before we rescued Murera, another compromised orphan came into our care. Sonje was found with a huge protrusion on her right hind leg, which was likely the result of a fracture that had fused in the wild. It is likely to have been inflicted by a spear or arrow. While her injuries were by no means as extensive as Murera’s, they also left her permanently lame.
It was heartwarming to witness how these girls drew strength from each other, overcoming staggering odds to find their feet again — in Murera’s case, quite literally. She came to us unable to walk; but after a long road and despite her disability, she became the unlikely mini matriarch of the Nursery, universally adored by all.
However, it was clear that we would need to forge a unique path for Murera. She would never thrive in a place like Tsavo, where elephants often have to travel great distances. Our two existing Reintegration Units, Voi and Ithumba, sit in the heart of Tsavo East National Park. While Kenya’s largest national park is widely recognised as prime elephant country, it would never be a tenable home for Murera, who lacked the mobility required to search for food and water during the dry season. We had similar reservations about Sonje, who would also struggle to cover great distances.
Then a serendipitous opportunity presented itself. The Trust had established a Saving Habitats program in the Kibwezi Forest through a concession agreement with the Kenya Forest Service. This important groundwater forest with its fresh springs flowing into crystal clear pools connects to Chyulu Hills National Park. It was already home to wild elephants who had hit the habitat jackpot: Thanks to its network of underground springs, the Kibwezi Forest has food and water in abundance throughout the year. Protected by our field teams and lush year-round, it provided a wilderness where Sonje and Murera could truly thrive.
And thus, our third Reintegration Unit was born. Umani Springs officially opened its doors in 2014, when Murera and Sonje arrived from the Nursery. While it was founded with their futures in mind, both girls had prodigious responsibilities on their shoulders. Establishing a new orphan unit is an enormous undertaking — it is where generations of orphans will find their independence, reclaim their place in the wild, and start their own families. We rely heavily on the founding matriarchs to propel each Reintegration Unit on the path to success. Voi had Eleanor and later Emily, Ithumba had Yatta, and finally, Umani had Murera and Sonje.
When Murera first stepped foot in the Kibwezi Forest, she was deeply unsettled, as was Sonje. It was the enthusiasm of orphan Lima Lima, who arrived two days later along with Quanza and Zongoloni to complete the founding herd, who settled them both. Murera excelled as a matriarch, guiding from the rear with Lima Lima assisting up front, so collectively the Umani herd navigated uncharted territory where no orphans had gone before. She has always embodied a quiet form of leadership, but even a casual onlooker could tell how she had the absolute confidence of her herd and her Keepers.
However, one particular orphan captured her heart. ‘Luggard the Lionheart’ graduated to Umani Springs in May 2020. Like Murera, he had been terribly, permanently maimed at the hands of humans; in his case, after a volley of bullets riddled his right hind leg. Perhaps Murera recognised that his injuries mirrored her own, down to the very limb that was compromised.
Murera adored Luggard with a love that was palpable. She put her own reintegration journey on hold to tend to his every need, slowly shepherding him through the forest and standing vigil over him while he napped. He may have not been her son by birth, but he was her child in every sense of the word.
And then, tragedy struck. As the first anniversary of his graduation to Umani Springs approached, Luggard’s condition began to rapidly decline. He had always faced an uphill battle to survive, and five years after his accident, his body had simply taken him as far as it could carry him.
Everyone was devastated by the loss of Luggard, but Murera was inconsolable. In the immediate wake of his death, she disappeared for four nights. This was extremely out of character; Murera never strayed far from the dependent herd and always spent the night in her stockade. The Keepers assumed that she wanted to mourn in private, away from the place where she had shared so many memories with little Luggard.
As time passed, however, it became clear that Murera’s ‘wild safari’ had an additional motive. Her belly grew rounder with each passing month and she became increasingly moody. Heartbroken over the loss of her adopted son, Murera decided to go out and find a mate, in order to conceive her own baby. This mission was clearly accomplished during her four-night sojourn, for she never again spent a night away from the stockades.
I will always remember the first time Umani Head Keeper Philip called me, suggesting what we had always thought was impossible: “Angela, I believe that Murera is pregnant.” This announcement brought about a mixed bag of emotions. We never thought that Murera’s body could withstand the weight of a mating bull. How could she weather a 22-month pregnancy, let alone the not-insignificant process of giving birth?
By then, all we could do was wait, wonder, and try not to worry. All the Keepers rallied around Murera, treating her like a queen even more than they already did. (They all insist they don’t have a favourite, but one can’t help but notice how they dote upon Murera, or how their eyes light up when they talk about her!) The other orphans seemed to recognise that their matriarch was embarking on a new journey and duly supported her. As she became more easily exhausted, they regulated their pace and curtailed their walks. Mwashoti, Murera’s original favourite who is now living wild, took to joining the orphans each morning at dawn, so he might spend the day by his matriarch’s side.
Nearly 22 months to the day after she lost Luggard, Murera gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Despite our concerns, she had a seamless delivery that lasted all of a few minutes. We named her daughter Mwana, which means ‘child’ in Swahili. It is a most fitting name, for she is the very first child born to one of our Umani orphans — an auspicious occasion that will hopefully lead to entire dynasties of elephants in the Kibwezi Forest.
Murera’s journey into motherhood didn’t entirely go without incident. While she adored Mwana from the outset, she had a strange aversion to nursing (perhaps wary of how it would distribute weight on her injured leg) and refused to let her daughter suckle. Remarkably, however, she allowed the Keepers to milk her, then bottle-feed Mwana by her side. This continued for eleven days and eleven nights, until something finally clicked and she allowed Mwana to nurse from her. From that moment onwards, she has been feeding her like a pro.
As a rule, elephants adore babies. However, it is next level with Mwana. Everyone is simply besotted. Enkesha and Kiasa are jostling for junior nanny duties; Lima Lima, Quanza, and Zongoloni are taking breaks from their wild lives to dote on the little one; Sonje has generously taken over leadership duties of the rest of the herd, so Murera can focus on motherhood; even the boys, who usually can’t be bothered about much, are politely curious about the new little cherub in their midst.
And the Keepers! Philip, Adan, Evans, and Sora are absolutely obsessed with our family’s new addition. All of them have children of their own — and indeed, they would also count the Umani orphans among their children — but Mwana has become their collective grandchild. They can’t hide their pride and adoration and have relished every second of her life. They can, in fact, take credit for her life, for their round-the-clock milking sessions helped save the day. Umani is a place full of precious and unique bonds, all connected by unconditional love.
I firmly believe that Mwana is Luggard’s final gift. A twist of fate stole his future, but his memory spurred Murera to embark on a premeditated journey to fill the void that he left. What is so extraordinary is that, up until that day, she had shown little inkling of ever undertaking such a journey. She had never interacted with the wild elephants, preferring to give their boisterous ways a wide berth given her own vulnerabilities. For Murera to launch off into the wild for four nights was a departure from all that we had ever known.
As Luggard’s time on earth drew to a close, he left Murera with a beautiful child to share her life with. I feel sure Daphne and Luggard are smiling down from the great beyond, watching their beloved elephant begin a new chapter with a healthy daughter by her side.
Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.