The Kaluku Trio — Bonded for Life

Published on the 28th of December, 2023

Every orphan is family to us, but those rescued as neonates hold a special place in our hearts. It is an utterly unique, extraordinarily rewarding experience to be part of an elephant’s journey from the very beginning. But to watch an inseparable trio travel this journey together is a special privilege indeed.

You might already know who I am referring to: Kindani, Kinyei, and Bondeni, our beloved ‘Kaluku Trio’. It was a big year for our favourite triumvirate, as they graduated from the Nursery and embarked upon the early stages of their rewilding in Tsavo East National Park.

As their futures unfold before them, I wanted to reflect upon the beginnings of this special group of elephants. I hope you enjoy this gallery of photos of them as much as I do.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Kaluku Trio — Bonded for Life

We never planned to have a neonate nursery for orphaned elephants at our Kaluku Field Headquarters. Rather, it sprang into being, as a newborn named Lemeki cascaded into our lives through a swirl of floodwaters. (I’ve covered Kaluku’s origin story in a previous Field Notes.)

Not two weeks later, a second neonate entered the mix. On the afternoon of 2nd April 2018, KWS rangers spotted a newborn elephant alone in Meru National Park. The reason she was orphaned remains a mystery, but we strongly suspect human-wildlife conflict. At just days old, the calf was too young and too naive to fear — she just knew that she needed a family. Without hesitation, she toddled after her rescuers and patiently waited for our plane to arrive. We named her Kindani.

Kindani on the day of her rescue

At the time, relentless rains had put swathes of Kenya under water. Our Nairobi Nursery was in the thick of it, receiving inches of precipitation in a single deluge, day after day. While older orphans could weather the literal and proverbial storm, Nairobi was no place for a fragile, newly rescued neonate. With little alternative, Kindani was brought to Kaluku. We put her in a small stable block just below my family home. Neonates are touch-and-go in the best of times — but then, the Athi River burst its banks.

The Athi River runs through Kaluku, meeting with the Tsavo River and then morphing into the Galana River as it winds its way through Tsavo before ultimately entering the Indian Ocean. Water levels always rise during the rainy season, but 2018 was different. Propelled by floods upcountry, the river continued to swell. By the time it reached Tsavo, it had turned into a wall of floodwaters that burst its banks.

Kindani and Kinyei

To further complicate matters, the flood happened at night. Kindani’s stable was engulfed in water. Thinking fast, her Keepers shepherded her uphill to our home, which sits on much higher ground. They retreated to Daphne’s bedroom, where the little elephant and her carers remained warm, dry, and sheltered from the storm. They were marooned for nine long hours: While the house was never in danger of being flooded, it turned into an island and was fully inaccessible until the river receded.

As it turned out, they had survived a flood of a magnitude that hadn’t been seen for more than a century. Numerous properties along the river were washed away. And little Kindani, cocooned in Daphne’s bedroom and surrounded by her Keepers, was oblivious to it all.

I have no doubt in my mind that this was divine intervention. Daphne passed away on 12th April 2018 — just days before the once-in-a-lifetime flood unfolded. My mother bore witness to the origin of our Kaluku Neonate Nursery, which she felt was a very fitting place to raise our most vulnerable orphans. It can’t be a coincidence that, just days after her death, one of these orphans found sanctuary in her bedroom.

We got to work rebuilding Kindani’s stable, expanding the original design to accommodate any unexpected additions who might enter the fold. In the meantime, the little elephant moved into a temporary home in one of our aircraft hangers.

Given all the disruption, we were grimly unsurprised when Kindani’s condition deteriorated, culminating in a bad case of pneumonia. She fell into a state of complete collapse, and for several days, she hovered between life and death. Our team never gave up on her, working night and day to bring her through to the other side. This was a period of great grief, as we mourned the loss of our matriarch, and of immense turmoil, as we grappled with the wake of the flooding. Little Kindani was our anchor — both a challenge to focus on, and an inspiring symbol of resilience in her own right.

The floodwaters eventually receded and Kindani got back to her feet. It wasn’t long after that our orphan herd welcomed another addition. On 4th July, a tourist group were admiring some of the Mara’s famous lions when they spotted a tiny elephant calf darting precariously close to the pride. She was running in and out of the bush, but as soon as the lions felt compelled, she would have made very easy prey. The body of a lactating female elephant was found nearby, who we can surmise was her mother. The orphan, who was named Kinyei, became Kindani’s neighbour in the new stable block.

Kinyei on the day of her rescue

At first, Kinyei struck us as an unusually hardy neonate. But then, about three months after her rescue and instigated by the dreaded teething phase, her condition suffered a serious downturn. The plump calf transformed into a skeleton, sustained only by IV drips and the absolutely heroic efforts of her Keepers. Kindani, who was only recently out of the woods herself, was Kinyei’s biggest cheerleader. She refused to leave her adopted sister’s side, constantly checking on her with reassuring trunk hugs and planting her warm little body right next to her.

Then, another twist of fate changed everything. On 4th February 2019, a newborn elephant wandered into a village bordering the Chyulu Hills. He had clearly travelled far: His small, soft footpads were covered in lacerations from the lava fields that spill out of the Chyulus. No elephant herds were in the vicinity, dashing any hopes of reuniting him with his mother. How a calf so young came to be on his own remains a mystery, but like Kindani and Kinyei, we strongly suspect human-wildlife conflict. We named him Bondeni.

And thus, the third member of our Kaluku Trio had arrived. Several factors informed Bondeni’s placement with the girls: Two of our most seasoned Keepers were assigned to Kindani and Kinyei’s care. Given Bondeni’s vulnerable state and very young age, we wanted him to be in their capable hands. We also felt he would benefit from the ‘big sister’ presence of two older girls. If our experience with elephants has taught us anything, it’s that females love a little bull to dote upon. Bondeni would give the girls a purpose, which was crucial, as they pulled through their own health sagas. We knew they would be wonderful influences on the young bull, providing him with love, guidance, and structure in equal measure.

Bondeni was so small that he did not fully comprehend all that had unfolded in his short life. He came to us without fear, trauma, or suspicion — just relief that his lonely journey had ended. He was also one of those once-on-a-blue-moon neonates who sailed through without a problem. During his first day at Kaluku, Bondeni initially struggled to walk due to his sore feet, which had been ravaged by the lava rocks. But after several days of cleaning his wounds, administering topical antibiotics, and keeping him on the soft grass of my front lawn, his tiny feet were ready for all sorts of adventures.

Bondeni on the day of his rescue

And what adventures they had! Kindani, Kinyei, and Bondeni became an inseparable little trio. They frolicked on the sandy beaches of the Athi River, rested beneath the shade of acacia trees, splashed in their favourite mud baths, and slept side-by-side in their adjoining stables.

Kindani was the undisputed leader of the group, but without the take-charge manner of so many mini-matriarchs. Quite the opposite, she was a very earnest little girl, most content when browsing alongside her sidekicks. Mishak, one of the Keepers charged with the Kaluku Trio, still remarks that Kindani is one of the cleverest elephants he has ever met.

Once her health improved, we finally got to know the full spectrum of Kinyei’s character. She emerged as a hopeless eccentric. One of her favourite habits was to pop above her stable when she heard people approaching, front feet perched atop the door and ears flared wide for effect. Like Kindani, she shared an absolute passion for eating, and whiled away the hours focused on the gourmand delights of juicy leaves, blades of grass, and green branches.

And of course, Bondeni was our clown. Even as an infant, he was constantly on the move — chasing, charging, and trumpeting at any moving target. While Kindani and Kinyei always operated at a very sedate frequency, Bondeni was all about action. Yet, despite all their differences, they fit together as a seamless unit.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for raising orphaned elephants — our strategy varies, depending on the individual’s needs. By September 2020, we felt that the Kaluku Trio would benefit from a move up to our Nairobi Nursery. They were an insular group, and we were eager for them to expand their social circle. Tsavo had also become very hot and dry, which were no longer ideal conditions for young, growing elephants. Kindani and Kinyei, who were still rather small thanks to their prolonged health issues, would enjoy the lush and plentiful browse to be found in Nairobi.

On the night of 3rd September, the babies bid farewell to Tsavo and made the journey north to Nairobi. By dawn, they were ensconced in their new home. Any move comes with some trepidation, but the Kaluku Trio embraced Nairobi largely from the outset. (Kindani, who has always been a bit more particular, took some time to adjust, while Kinyei was initially mystified by the new types of greenery. To no one’s surprise, Bondeni adapted with nary a blip!)

Clad in matching red blankets, the Kaluku Trio graduates to Nairobi

One thing remained a constant: The Kaluku Trio remained as inseparable as ever. While they quickly made new friends and admirers — they had a herd’s worth of mini matriarchs jostling to look after them — they stayed absolutely devoted to each other. It became a common sight to find them enjoying a group nap in a forest clearing, feet and trunks touching as they slept in a circle.

We were potently reminded of their inseparability during the 2022 drought: With all the new rescues pouring in, we had to do some room rearrangements at the Nursery. Kindani, Kinyei, and Bondeni — who were rapidly outgrowing their baby stables anyway — were moved into open-air stockades that were close to each other, but not directly adjacent. Kindani was strongly opposed to her new accommodations and protested throughout the night. Exhausted after her sleepless nights, she resorted to long midday naps in the forest, watched over by Bondeni and Kinyei.

Kindani and Bondeni

We soon realised that Kindani wished to be between her best friends, so we did yet another round of rearrangements. The effect was instantaneous: Now in a stockade sandwiched between Bondeni and Kinyei, she finally started sleeping soundly.

While Kinyei and Kindani continued to dote on Bondeni at the Nursery, he rapidly started outpacing them in size and strength. However, like any good big sisters, they have always known how to keep him in line. Bondeni was (and remains) a famous mischief maker, but no one can bring him to heel more quickly and effectively than Kindani and Kinyei.

As it became time to plan for the Kaluku Trio’s future after the Nursery, it was very clear that they would remain together. We decided to move them to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit. This would be a return to their roots: Like Kaluku, where they began, Ithumba is located in the Tsavo ecosystem. Many of their Nursery friends had graduated there in the months prior, meaning they would have familiar faces to greet them.

After weeks of practice, we set the Kaluku Trio’s graduation date for the morning of 25th May 2023. Again, we approached the move with some trepidation. Ever the contrarian, Bondeni had mulishly refused to step aboard the lorry during his practice runs. On the actual morning of graduation, however, he relented — perhaps inspired by the example set by Kindani and Kinyei, who walked into their respective compartments with no fuss or drama. The trio received the unusual warm welcome in Ithumba, as friends old and new gathered to introduce the orphans to Ithumba life.

It has now been seven months since the Kaluku Trio graduated to Ithumba. They are starting to grow up and branch out — but their devotion to each other remains unchanged. They begin and end each day together, sleeping side by side in their shared stockade. Bondeni has become Ithumba’s resident alarm clock, jolting the entire compound awake as he impatiently shrieks for his morning milk. Just like a pesky little brother, he is very impatient with Kindani and Kinyei during the lead-up to breakfast, but his ever-patient ‘sisters’ don’t bat an eyelid — they never seem to tire of his antics. Out in the bush, they fan out to do their own thing or play with other friends, but they always gravitate back towards each other.

Kindani, Kinyei, and Bondeni are three elephants who lost their families — but through these individual twists of fate, they found something just as sacred in each other.

The Kaluku Trio, just as inseparable in Ithumba

Our Kaluku Trio has already travelled far together, and still so much of their story remains unwritten. I predict they will remain by each other’s sides at Ithumba, even as they grow up and reclaim their place in the wild. Of course, the ways of nature will dictate that Bondeni become more independent, but we have seen plenty of grown bulls who remain deeply bonded to important females in their lives. (Laikipia stands out as a shining example; he is very connected to Mweya and Edie.)

Whatever the future has in store, I know that, in one way or another, our Kaluku Trio will remain bonded for life.

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.

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