There is an unspoken rule when it comes to orphaned elephants: The littlest rescues grow up to be the biggest characters.
Our history is scattered with elephants who stand as testament to this fact — Kithaka, Kibo, Imenti, Ndotto, Ngilai, Lemeki, Bondeni, and Wendi (though calling Wendi a mere ‘character’ is understating the matter!), to name a few.
Those of you who are familiar with our orphan herd will know that one notable name is missing from the list. This month, I would like to focus on the story of a very special little elephant — one who has given us her fair share of headaches, but also countless laughs along the way.
– Angela Sheldrick
Kamok, The Queen of Mischief
It is only fitting that Kamok’s story began on her terms. Almost ten years ago to the day, a group of cattle herders were settling around the campfire for the evening when a sudden movement caught their attention. To their utter astonishment, it was a newborn elephant, paddling shakily yet purposefully into one of their huts.
The herders were terrified. They knew that where there is a baby elephant, the mother typically isn’t far behind. Wary that, at any moment, a full-grown female might come rampaging through the boma, they fled the scene. But as they left, a herder named Francis Erangai had the foresight to call Stephen Elimlim, Senior Supervisor of Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
Stephen arrived to a deserted boma. [A boma is a fenced enclosure used to house livestock.] “When I arrived, the herders had fled. I was expecting angry elephants everywhere, but all I could see was the tiny little elephant, hiding in the dark inside the hut,” he recalls. He parked his vehicle nearby and waited silently, hoping the mother would return for her baby. The minutes dragged on, and still she didn’t appear. Knowing that a helpless creature waited within, Stephen walked inside the boma.
“I could see the baby was cold and unhappy. I think she came into the boma for security, maybe attracted by the cattle. I went into the hut and closed the door. I gave her water and wrapped my jacket around her to warm her.” Even as a newborn, Kamok’s playful nature shone through: “I stroked her and she started to play, but she was so young and had been so frightened that she soon fell asleep,” Stephen remembers.
It was too late to mobilise a rescue that night, but we organised to pick up the baby first thing the following morning. Meanwhile, she was in good hands, in the capable care of Stephen: “I stayed with her all night. I am so happy I helped to save her; I made a little friend.” To forever connect the calf to her origins, we named her Kamok, after a place on Ol Pejeta.
Kamok was so tiny that Stephen was able to single handedly carry her to the rescue plane. Even our most seasoned Keepers were shocked by the sight that greeted them on the airstrip: The calf’s umbilical cord was soft and fresh, her ears petal pink, and the pads on her feet were clean and unworn. Clearly, she had been orphaned fresh out of the womb.
We will never know exactly why Kamok’s mother abandoned her, but we can surmise: Her limbs were extremely weak, leaving her unable to walk properly. Newborn calves must be strong enough to travel 20 kilometres within a day of their birth. If Kamok wasn’t able to keep up with her herd, her mother would have been forced to make the heartbreaking decision to leave her behind.
The odds were immensely stacked against Kamok. Any neonate is a prodigious challenge; those who have never received their mother’s colostrum — as was the case with Kamok — are on another level. We infused plasma from a full-grown, healthy elephant into her tiny body, to ensure she had some natural antibodies. Keepers remained by her side every minute, day and night. Daphne was still very involved in raising orphans at the time, and she was instrumental in Kamok’s recovery. Slowly, slowly, the tiny elephant’s mobility improved and her health stabilised. We began to cautiously hope that perhaps she had a future, after all.
As Kamok’s condition improved, her personality exploded. Mishack, one of our longest serving Keepers, sums up ‘The Boss’ perfectly: “Kamok was a tiny little elephant with a very big character. We did spoil her a bit. And because she was so young when she arrived, she became the ‘oldest’ resident at the Nursery, even though she was still younger and smaller than many of the new arrivals. But she thought she was ‘The Boss!’”
Kamok always loved the spotlight. In fact, she was loath to share it. Woe be any new rescue who diverted the Keepers’ attention away from her; Kamok would make her displeasure known through surly pushes and sneaky kicks at the unsuspecting newcomer. She became a little show-off at the public visiting hour. Whenever she thought the Keepers weren’t looking, she would dance around the rope cordon and mock-charge the crowd. This always caused great hilarity among the visitors, but the team really had their work cut out for them. In fact, two Keepers were assigned to ‘Kamok duty’ at all times, just to ensure she didn’t wreak too much havoc.
No one was more aware of the essence of Kamok than Edwin, Head Keeper at the Nursery. She graduated from the Nursery seven years ago, but he still regards her as “one of the naughtiest elephants I have ever known.” I think he felt an equal measure of nostalgia and relief when she embarked on the next step in her journey and graduated to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit in 2016!
Kamok got quite a shock when she arrived in Tsavo. All the elephants there were much bigger, older, and more experienced than her. When she tried to push her diminutive weight around, they put her firmly in her place. This was an important moment for ‘The Boss’. Elephant society is centred around respect. Kamok quickly learned that insolence wouldn’t win her any friends. So, she recalibrated her behaviour — but in typical Kamok fashion, she gave herself plenty of wiggle room and was constantly toeing the line of elephant decorum.
Most young females dream of becoming a mini matriarch. They jostle for nannying duties and lovingly nurture junior orphans. Kamok has no such aspirations. In fact, she vacillates between disinterest and overt antagonism when it comes to youngsters. Reminiscent of her Nursery days, she delights in needling ex-orphans’ babies, waiting until their mothers’ backs are turned to give them a furtive shove. Any real affections are reserved for Ambo, a gentle young bull who somehow captured her heart. We often wonder what type of mother Kamok will be, but her love for Ambo gives us hope!
Emmanuelle, a Keeper who moved with Kamok from the Nursery to Ithumba, notes: “Some elephant orphans are born leaders and the herd instinctively follows them. But Kamok is not a leader; she could never be a leader, because she would just mislead them all!”
But this year, Kamok led herself into an exciting new phase. After months of experimenting with her independence, she finally made the transition to a fully wild life. In classic Kamok fashion, it wasn’t without its twists: At first, she tried to assemble her own little herd. She orchestrated private excursions with Ambo and Larro, reluctantly returning them to the main herd at sundown. Unfortunately for Kamok, Ambo and Larro are still quite young and don’t yet share her urge to go wild.
So, Kamok formulated a different plan. She teamed up with Barsilinga, Sana Sana, Kauro, Malkia, Rapa, Pare, and Kithaka, all of whom are in her general age group. Bolstered by this support system, she finally had the confidence to go wild.
But the twists weren’t done yet! Kamok linked up with Mulika, Sidai, Yetu, and their wild babies. At 23 and 19 years old, respectively, Mulika and Sidai are experienced mothers and matriarchs. We feel certain that Kamok is learning a lot from them — and perhaps honing her own nurturing instincts in the process!
‘The Boss’ has already covered a lot of ground in a decade. Now, she has her whole wild life ahead of her. We cannot predict what the future holds, but we hope that in the not-too-distant future, Kamok will stride up to the stockades with a baby in tow, proudly continuing the time honoured tradition of our ex-orphans introducing their newborns to the men who raised them. For Kamok, this moment would be particularly poignant, for she was only a newborn herself when she came into our world. From these shaky beginnings, the most enchanting (and yes, exasperating) force of nature has blossomed.
Note: The portraits and quotes from this edition of Field Notes are taken from "The Unsung Heroes", a collection of previously untold stories about orphaned elephants and their heroic rescuers. To learn more about this special book, click here.
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.