Ithumba's Baby Bounty

Published on the 30th of December, 2021

New life is always a joyous event, but there is something special about the birth of a baby elephant. Elephants are celebratory by nature, and nothing brings this out more than a new arrival to the herd. Nurtured within their mothers for 22 months, these little miracles burst forth into the world and find themselves instantly enveloped in a cocoon of love. I often wonder how it must feel to be a newborn elephant. They go from a literal womb to a sensory one, embraced by a web of trunks and warm rumbles.

In this Field Notes, I would like to delve into the baby bounty that blessed Ithumba this year. These calves arrived during a very difficult time in Tsavo, at the height of a devastating dry season. They are living reminders that hope springs eternal.

As this year draws to a close, sending you my best wishes for a happy, healthy new year. Thank you for being here — and I'll see you in 2022.

– Angela Sheldrick

Ithumba's Baby Bounty

Two years ago, Tsavo was the land of plenty. Some rainy seasons are more generous than others, but this was on another level. We received several years’ worth of rain over the course of a few months, swathing the landscape in a glorious blanket of green and proliferating life in all its forms.

It was during this time that the newest generation of elephants was conceived. But an elephant’s gestation period is 22 months, and the world can change enormously during that time. (Indeed, humanity experienced its own prodigious changes between 2019 and today.) This year, the bounty of the previous two was replaced by scarcity, as poor rains spawned a long and difficult dry season — one that tested the survival of all manner of creatures. The calves of 2021 may have been conceived in the land of plenty, but they were born into a time of want. And yet, that makes their existence all the more miraculous.

Kaia was the first miracle of October — little did we know how many would follow in her footsteps!

The first miracle arrived on the morning of 17th October, when Yatta’s ex orphan herd converged upon Ithumba with a peal of trumpets. With this level of fanfare, we knew there must be a newborn in their midst — and sure enough, Kinna had a tiny calf scurrying by her side. We named her Kaia, a nod to the ancient red earth she will call home. The date had special significance for Kinna: 22 years ago to the day, she was just a newborn herself, fighting for her life in a waterhole. Now, she is a mother of two.

With the birth of Njema, Naserian went from a dedicated nanny to a first-time mum

Just ten days later, a loyal nanny became a first-time mum. Naserian, who for so long had looked after her friends’ babies, gave birth to a lovely little girl. After nearly half a year away, she returned to Ithumba with the express purpose of introducing the Keepers to her new arrival. We named the baby Njema, which means “good” in Swahili. Naserian was flanked by ex orphans Wendi and Sunyei, and their wild-born daughters, Wema, Wiva, and Siku.

This was a poignant reminder of Naserian’s 2004 rescue. She had been on her own for at least a week, desperately trying to latch onto passing herds but suffering rejection each time. Naserian came to us severely traumatised, so we stabled her next to an outgoing orphan named Wendi. Ever since that first night, when Wendi reached her little trunk through the stable to comfort the new arrival, the two girls have been best friends. Today, they are raising their own families side by side.

Our ex orphans' older babies, such as Wiva (left), are now nannies for the females who nannied them

Most fittingly, Wendi’s eldest daughter, six-year-old Wiva, has appointed herself Njema's head nanny. Wendi was a wayward mother the first time around, and Naserian was instrumental in raising Wiva. This is a very special changing of the guard to witness: Now that many of our ex orphans' babies are getting older, it's their turn to play a supportive role to the females who helped raise them.

Nasalot's baby, Noah, is proving to be a rascal equal to his big brother, Nusu

On 5th November, the third calf was born in as many weeks. This boy belonged to Nasalot, a stately elephant who has overcome her fair share of troubles. She was just three months old when she lost her family to poachers. Nasalot spent her initial nights at the Nursery drowning in grief, pacing relentlessly while the other orphans slept. But then, she overcame her own heartache and became one of the most nurturing orphans in our care. Her first calf, Nusu, is a hopeless rascal — and all signs indicate that her newborn, Noah, may be of a similar temperament.

Like all calves, Yatta's youngest, Yogi, finds excitement around every corner

At this point, Ithumba had become a veritable baby nursery. Several wild elephant mums had also taken up residence in the area, knowing that Ithumba was a secure place to give birth. Between these additions, plus Kaia, Njema, and Noah, there were newborns whizzing about in every direction. And so, when Yatta gave birth to her third calf on the 10th November, Head Keeper Benjamin initially didn't even realise there was a new baby in the mix! We named him Yogi, joining his older siblings Yoyo and Yetu.

An extraordinary family portrait: Ex orphan Yatta, with her babies Yogi, Yoyo, and Yetu

Yatta is a perfect example of how one saved life can impact generations of elephants. 22 years ago, she was found standing by the carcass of her mother, who had been slain by poachers and robbed of her ivory. Despite these fraught beginnings, she had an enormous heart and a unique aptitude for leadership. She was the founding matriarch of our Ithumba Reintegration Unit, and under her guidance, many orphans have found their place back in the wilds of Tsavo. Yatta’s firstborn, Yetu, was only the second wild baby conceived by one of our Ithumba orphans. Now, Yetu is nine years old and on the cusp of motherhood herself.

Sunyei's newest addition, Saba, made seven

Not to be outdone, Sunyei introduced us to her newborn a week later. Sunyei’s journey has taken her from the bottom of a hole in a sand river, from which she was rescued in 2003, to the plains of Tsavo, where she is now a mother of two. Because her latest addition was the seventh calf born to our Ithumba ex orphans in 2021 (although, little did we know, the arrivals weren’t over yet!), we named her Saba, which means “seven” in Swahili.

Tragically, not all babies survived the dry season, including Makena's Mumo

We cannot mention "seven" without acknowledging the two calves who tragically did not make it this year. In August, Galana gave birth, but it must have been premature, for her calf was unusually feeble. Galana calmly shadowed her baby, but seemed to be waiting for the inevitable. Despite the Keepers’ best efforts, the calf didn’t live beyond a day.

The following month, Makena gave birth to a sweet little girl we named Mumo. For several days, mum and baby remained in the environs of Ithumba, until they suddenly disappeared. We will never know what induced Makena to venture off into the drought-stricken wilds of Tsavo, when she had everything she needed at Ithumba, nor do we know what actually transpired. On the third day, they returned, but the excursion had taken its toll on Mumo. The Keepers moved heaven and earth to try to revive her, but heartbreakingly, she slipped away.

Instead of lamenting her personal loss, Makena (right) has focused on the living

Elephants are emotional creatures, but they also know how to move on. After Makena mourned Mumo's death, she turned the page — wiser, certainly, but not crushed by the weight of her grief. Instead, she took up nannying all the tiny babies surrounding her. Rather than seeing these calves as a painful reminder of her own loss, she embraced them as a healing balm. When we reflect on Makena's openness and selflessness, it so typifies the wondrous ways of elephants.

The dry season is a challenging time for all elephants, but especially new mothers and their babies

The tragedy of Mumo underscores just how difficult these months were for new mothers. Even in the best of times, survival comes down to the wisdom of matriarchs, tapping into a repository of ancient knowledge and hazarding the occasional calculated risk. This crop of babies should have been born in concert with the rains, but the dry season wore on, creating very challenging conditions for new life to flourish.

Just a few weeks ago, we saw one of these calculated risks play out in the most miraculous way. After an absence of nearly a year, Sidai and Chyulu appeared at Ithumba with their calves, Sita and Cheka, by their sides. The Keepers were delighted to discover that Sidai had also just given birth to a baby boy. However, they quickly realised that her return home was actually a cry for help, for she had been struck by a poisoned arrow. The entire family was quite gaunt, as if they had travelled a great distance in a short period of time.

Sidai's call for help was answered, and the whole treatment went by without a hitch

We were able to mobilise a rapid treatment. The whole operation took place just outside the stockades, under the close supervision of more than a dozen grown elephants. Incredibly, there were no dramatics as Dr Poghon anaesthetised Sidai and began treatment. It was as if the other ex orphans understood that their friend was receiving the help she so direly needed. Instead, they focused on little Silas (the name we gave Sidai’s newborn) and Sita, caring for them until their mum was back on her feet.

After a long journey "home," baby Silas (right) earned a long, peaceful nap

While we will never know exactly what unfolded with Sidai, we have our suspicions. An elephant with young calves must be anchored to water, and because Sidai had been absent from Ithumba, she must have been at the Tiva River, which is the next nearest watering point. When she was struck with the poisoned arrow, she was forced to make a brave — but risky — decision to seek help at Ithumba. Leaving the certainty of water on the Tiva, she and her calves embarked on a long trek across the drought-stricken plains of Tsavo. This is an extraordinary journey for any injured elephant, but especially for one with a newborn and a two-year-old by her side.

By saving one orphan, we are giving life to generations of elephants

This story perfectly encapsulates our year. Yes, it was a difficult one, full of hardships and occasional heartbreak. And yet, it left me with an overwhelming feeling of hope. After Ithumba’s baby bounty, we now know of 44 wild-born elephant calves, with many more on the way. In the fullness of time, these tiny babies will become the majestic bulls and wise old matriarchs presiding over Tsavo. They will have their own families, who will give birth to their own offspring, and so it will go on. Had their mothers not been given a second chance all those years ago, none of this would be possible. By saving one orphan, we are giving life to generations of elephants.

Today's babies are tomorrow's giants of the plains

I end on a hopeful note: At the beginning of December, after months of waiting and wishing, the heavens opened. Our ex orphan mothers immediately disappeared, eager to introduce their babies to Tsavo in its green splendour. When we see them again, they will be a bit bigger and a bit plumper. But now, they have all of Tsavo to discover, this glorious land they call home.

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 monthly email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with members of our team, please subscribe here.

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