As we close the door on 2022 and usher in a new year, I find myself reflecting on one very special elephant raised through our Orphans' Project.
This remarkable female is a reminder of how saving one life paves the way for so many others. This month, I would like to take you through the story of Yatta.
– Angela Sheldrick
Yatta, A Remarkable Elephant
Yatta is an elephant of Tsavo. She is an orphan, a mother, and a grandmother. She is a founding female who has carried the legacy of our Orphans’ Project on her shoulders, paving the way for new generations.
With all this in mind, her name could not be more fitting. If there is one landmark inextricably linked to Tsavo, it is the Yatta Plateau. This magnificent feat of nature dominates Tsavo East, stretching down its length for nearly 300 kilometres. The Yatta Plateau serves as the main watershed for Tsavo’s great rivers, the Athi and Galana, and their tributaries, and its bubbling springs provide a lifeline for all manner of creatures. It is a life-force and a foundation of the region.
Yatta’s story began in the shadow of the Yatta Plateau, at the cusp of the new millennium. On 26th October 1999, a team of workers heard bellows ringing across the Tsavo Triangle. Following the noise, they came upon a devastating scene. Lying on the ground was the body of a female elephant, who had been killed by poachers and robbed of her ivory. Huddled by her side was her tiny daughter, who was now an orphan.This calf was Yatta.
Without her mother’s milk and protection, Yatta would have met an equally tragic end. However, she had guardian angels on her side. The workers brushed off their surprise and sprung into action. Walking in step with her diminutive stride, they escorted the little orphan across the Mtito tributary, loaded her onto the back of an old Land Rover, and ferried her across the crocodile-laden Athi River to the nearest airstrip, where she was met by a plane that flew her to Nairobi.
As we often find with orphans who have witnessed unspeakable tragedy, Yatta came to us deeply traumatised. However, the kindness of the Keepers showed her another side to humankind. Slowly, slowly, the memory of her mother’s awful demise began to fade and she embraced her new family. Weeks turned into months, and we soon discovered that we had a formidable mini matriarch in our midst. The other orphans flocked to Yatta, enchanted by her natural competence and kindness.
Two decades ago, our Orphans’ Project was in a very different phase. At the time, the five orphan units of today were but dreams on the horizon — a dream in which Yatta played an integral role in realising, as you will soon find out. Instead, an orphan’s journey was fairly straightforward, beginning at the Nairobi Nursery and culminating at our Voi Reintegration Unit.
So it was that Yatta embarked upon the next stage of her journey, graduating to Voi on the back of unseasonal rains in early 2001. All the while, our orphan herd continued to grow, as rampant poaching and natural tragedies took their toll. Every Nursery infant ultimately moved to Voi, and by 2004, our dependent herd had ballooned to 31. This proved to be an unwieldy number for our Keepers, particularly during the dry season, when it becomes a real challenge to find ample browse for so many elephants.
Realising that our orphan herd would only continue to expand, we knew it was time to establish another Reintegration Unit. Working with the KWS, we settled on Ithumba, located in the untouched northern sector of Tsavo. But now, we had an extremely weighty decision to make: Who would serve as Ithumba’s founding herd?
We knew that the success of our new Reintegration Unit hinged on its founding herd. These elephants would lead the way for all the orphans who would follow in their footsteps. Females were the obvious choice, given their tendency to roost closer to home for longer. We needed four bonded girls who were old enough to be fairly self-sufficient, yet not so old that they roused the desires of local bulls. Of course, it was also vital that they have a strong leadership acumen, as future classes of orphans would look up to them. They needed to be nurturing yet strict, commanding respect to keep unruly young bulls in line.
After much heart-searching, we selected four special females to serve as Ithumba’s founding herd: Yatta, Kinna, Nasalot, and Mulika. On 21st June 2004, they strode aboard the moving lorry and made the journey north — not only beginning new chapters in their own personal stories, but also commencing a momentous new chapter for the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
It was important that our fledgling Ithumba herd be anchored by a strong matriarch. Unsurprisingly to all who had raised her, it was Yatta who took the mantle. From the moment she stepped foot in Ithumba, she led with confidence and decisiveness. More orphans soon joined our founding herd, and Ithumba began to blossom. Yatta remained a constant throughout, serving as a much-loved friend and tutor to the younger elephants.
The Keepers were always struck by Yatta’s extraordinary compassion. She had a preternatural ability to keep eyes on all her little charges and intuit exactly what they needed in the moment. When Kinna accidentally trod on Wendi’s trunk, it was Yatta who rushed over to give her a reassuring embrace. When Ol Malo spent too much time submerged underwater, it was Yatta who pulled her out of the pool. When the older boys pushed their luck, it was Yatta who reminded them to mind their manners with a swift prod of her tusks. She always gave the youngsters the privilege of leading the herd to and fro, while she diligently took up the rear guard.
As the years passed, Yatta began to show great interest in leading a wild life. Tentative forays into the bush soon evolved into nights and days away from the stockades. By 2010, she had fully transitioned from our care. She shepherded many orphans along this journey with her, creating Ithumba’s very first ex-orphan herd in the process.
Eight years after she founded Ithumba, Yatta began a new journey. 22 months prior, we had witnessed her courtship with ‘Dad,’ a magnificent wild tusker with ivory that sweeps nearly to the ground. On 19th January 2012, we met the fruit of that affair. As has since become a tradition among our Ithumba ex-orphans, Yatta journeyed back to the stockades within hours of giving birth, bursting with pride and eager to introduce her new baby to the men who raised her.
We named the calf Yetu, which means ‘ours’ in Swahili. It proved to be a fitting moniker, because Yatta invited us to be part of her daughter’s life from the very beginning. Yetu is an entirely wild elephant, but she has always felt at home among the extended human-elephant family that raised her mother.
In the following decade, Yatta became a mother three times over, bringing two sons into the world: Yoyo was born in 2017, followed by Yogi in 2021. As she raised her own family, Yatta also remained steadfastly committed to her extended herd. Under her leadership, classes of ex-orphans have adeptly navigated droughts and floods, poaching crises and times of peace. Many elephants can thank this remarkable matriarch for shepherding them along their journey back to the wild.
Last month, our Ithumba family experienced a new milestone — and again, we can trace it back to Yatta. She and her ex-orphan herd had spent much of the dry season away from Ithumba. No doubt Yatta, with her wealth of knowledge and experience, had scouted out one of the few remaining pockets of bounty to be found in Tsavo.
Then, mid-morning on the 11th November, Head Keeper Benjamin saw a line of wild elephants approaching the stockades. In the lead was a beautiful female, who he immediately recognised as Yatta’s firstborn, Yetu. Striding by her side was a beautiful baby boy — her newborn, firstborn son! In keeping with Yatta’s family naming convention, we named him Yebo.
Yebo marks a new branch on our Ithumba family tree. Over the years, we have been introduced to many Ithumba ‘grandbabies’ — a wild calf born to an orphan we rescued, raised, and reintegrated back into the wild. However, he is the very first calf born to one of those Ithumba grandbabies, making us honorary great-grandparents! This is a milestone we have experienced at Voi several times, and it is thrilling to see the same finally happening at Ithumba.
Yetu, a wild elephant through and through, was as excited as any ex-orphan to introduce Yebo to her extended Ithumba family. A short while later, Yatta and the rest of her ex-orphan herd arrived. The celebrations reached new heights, as the proud grandmother welcomed her grandson with a joyous frenzy of trumpets, flapping ears, and trunk hugs.
22 years ago, Yatta nearly lost everything. This single life saved has already spawned two generations of elephants and shepherded countless orphans to a wild life. Over the coming years and decades, Yatta’s family tree will continue to branch out, creating dynasties in the process. And to think, it all began with one tiny elephant, bellowing for help at the foot of the Yatta Plateau.
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.