While we are well-versed in the rescue-to-reintegration process, having helped over 150 orphaned elephants make the journey thus far, everything feels new and exciting for the orphans at Umani Springs.
This is, after all, our newest Reintegration Unit, so the herd there is blazing through uncharted territory in the Kibwezi Forest. This month in particular, we’ve noticed that a few of the orphans are really beginning to hear the call of the wild, experimenting with the odd 'night out' and testing the boundaries of their independence. Whenever they are ready to transition to a fully wild life, the Kibwezi Forest, the Chyulu Hills and environs which extend into Tsavo West National Park, will be a perfect home for these special orphans — a fact that is miraculous in and of itself, as a decade ago, it was a very different place. In light of the progress our little miracle herd is making there, it feels only fitting to delve into the miracle that is the Kibwezi Forest.
– Angela Sheldrick
Second Chances — and a Wild Future:
Sometimes, things come together in a truly unexpected way, as if by divine intervention. When Umani Springs and the Kibwezi Forest fell into the safe hands of the SWT, it very much felt like that. We were faced with a spectacular responsibility and opportunity: To protect and transform this natural paradise and, by extension, create a fitting sanctuary for the orphaned elephants we rescue who are permanently damaged by the cruel hand of fate. This beautiful area and its unique orphan herd are a great example of how, when given a second chance, the natural world can recover, heal, and flourish against great odds.
All of Kenya’s wild spaces hold their own magic, but the Kibwezi Forest is a true gem. Within its heart, this unique groundwater forest safeguards a network of springs that percolate out of lava banks, snaking between the reaching roots of giant fig trees, and tumbling into crystalline ponds. It is truly the life force behind all residents in the area, from the forest’s endemic species to the 12 orphaned elephants who are healing there and to the communities that live along its borders.
However, it was not always this way. The opportunity to fund, manage, and protect the Kibwezi Forest came to us in 2008, when we undertook a long-term lease from the Kenya Forest Service as part of our Saving Habitats Program. After visiting the area, Daphne’s words were, “I honestly cannot see the potential.” — that is how degraded and denuded the forest was back in that time. It was easy to see her point: Kibwezi had been completely ravaged by bushmeat poaching, illegal logging, charcoal harvesting, and livestock incursions. However, we never step down from a challenge. On signing the agreement, our first step was to secure the boundary with a substantial electric fence, which connected the Kibwezi Forest on three sides into the Chyulu Hills National Park, and then continue that fenceline for 74 more kilometers along the border of the National Park’s boundary. We employed 45 members of the community to patrol daily, working with our dedicated staff to ensure that this ambitious project was maintained. We continue to support the Kenya Wildlife Service’s management of the Chyulu Hills National Park with two Anti-Poaching Teams that operate in the area, along with aerial surveillance, fire control, donation of vehicles, and the funding and management of the fenceline.
The effects of these efforts have been nothing short of transformative; with the forest’s boundary secure, the community is safe from human-wildlife conflict and the ecosystem within is shielded from the ravages of man. It is a graphic example of nature’s extraordinary powers of recovery when it is protected. In the past decade, wildlife populations have blossomed, the vegetation has recovered, and rainfall has increased year over year. Daphne witnessed this extraordinary recovery, and Umani Springs soon became one of her favourite places to visit.
In 2014, we once again tapped into the magic of the Kibwezi Forest — this time to provide hope to some very special miracles, elephant orphans who came to us with the odds stacked against them. Many of these orphans, like Murera and Sonje, had suffered from horrendous poaching injuries that left them permanently compromised. We needed a special place for them to heal, flourish, and eventually, transition to a wild life. The Kibwezi Forest, with its gentle environment and high security, seemed a most fitting destination for all of that to come to fruition.
It is a challenge to begin a Reintegration Unit from scratch, without the continuity of older and wiser wild-living orphans to mentor new arrivals. When Murera and Sonje arrived as the first residents of Umani Springs, they were extremely unsettled. Thankfully, it was only for two days before the next group of orphans arrived. Quanza, Lima Lima, and Zongoloni were bonded friends, and while they all held psychological scars from the events that left them orphaned, theirs were not physical. From the moment she disembarked from the transporter truck, it became evident that Lima Lima was the glue that would hold the Umani herd together. This remarkable elephant immediately embraced her new home with a passion that was infectious. While Murera and Sonje were the older two, Lima Lima provided the enthusiasm and leadership that the rest of the group initially needed. Something about the forest had a transformative effect on her; she had been a rather colorless character at the Nursery, but suddenly her spirit soared and she exhibited a joie de vivre that the other orphans couldn’t help but also embody.
Over the years at Umani, Lima Lima has continued to amaze us. Not only is she the nexus for this orphan group, but she has also taken it upon herself to be the protector of the Keepers. This new environment was as foreign to them as it was to their charges, but Lima Lima assumed full responsibility of ensuring their safety — a duty she cheerfully takes on each and every day. Sometimes, when they find they are lost in the forest’s dense undergrowth, she steps up and guides the whole group home. She has an innate ability to spot danger, and is always the first to alert the Keepers of the presence of buffalos, wild elephants, or anything she perceives as potentially hazardous for the men. Murera and Sonje remain the matriarchs of Umani, but they were robbed of the physical capacity to lead from the front, so Lima Lima has taken on the role of their deputy. This energetic elephant, who is brimming with love for her elephant and human family, defers to her matriarchs and ensures Umani’s continued success.
It is also special to note the equalizing power of Umani Springs: While many of its orphans are physically compromised, they are always relocated with their closest confidants from the Nursery, as we would never dream of having them embark on a wild life without their best friends by their sides. As such, many of the Umani orphans are not injured at all — but in reality, none of the orphans there feel like special needs elephants any more, despite the fact that many still carry the physical scars of their past. They are all happily thriving, deeply bonded to each other and their Keepers, while also forging successful friendships with the wild elephant community.
I began Umani Springs with a handful of trusted, long-serving Keepers. At the time, I imagined that they would remain there just long enough to settle the establishment, before returning to circulate between our many other facilities. However, the Kibwezi Forest has a magnetic hold over all those who cross under its leafy canopy. Being cocooned in this special natural world, and ensconced in company of an elephant who is the beating heart and soul of Umani Springs, proved too important a bond to disturb — and it seems I have happily lost these Keepers to this special haven forever! I can think of no more certain measure of success. Through perseverance, hard work, and unwavering belief, the Kibwezi Forest has been wrestled back from the brink of destruction. Today, it is a peaceful and protected Utopia, affording a viable, wild future to the special miracles who also needed a second chance.
Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To receive the email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with our staff, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.