New Beginnings At Voi

Published on the 24th of February, 2022

To me, Voi is a place that will always be synonymous with new beginnings.

My parents, Daphne and David Sheldrick, established the original Voi Orphan Unit in 1954, when David was the founding warden of Tsavo East National Park. In the intervening decades, more than 125 orphans have passed through Voi’s doors on their journey back to the wild. With this rich history comes a tapestry of stories, as orphans past and present converge. We opened our Galdessa Eco Lodge so visitors could become a part of these stories, meeting our Voi orphans and helping us conserve the environment they call home.

Over the past few weeks, several extraordinary stories have unfolded at Voi. This month’s Field Notes stars some very special female elephants, each of whom is embarking on a new chapter in her own journey.

– Angela Sheldrick

New Beginnings in Voi

The rains always usher in new beginnings, as months of hardships are washed away. It is a sudden, visceral change: Dusty horizons become green with possibility. The haunting stillness of the dry season is replaced by a pulsating, life-affirming hum. It is not just the chatter of birds or sweet smell of fresh earth, but something even more intrinsic — almost as if the earth, at its very core, has opened itself up to a period of bounty.

With the rains come new beginnings

All manner of life celebrates their change in circumstances, not least of which our orphans. Our Voi herd has always been dealt the brunt of the dry season. The southern sector of Tsavo East is dominated by vast, uninterrupted plains. For much of the year, this translates into a veritable feast. For this very reason, elephants have always favoured Voi, but it is not for the faint of heart: During failed rains and droughts, the land of plenty transforms into a desert. Swathes of land are without water, and elephants must rely on ancient, deeply ingrained maps to find food and water sources.

Voi orphans tend to go wild later, taking their time to absorb knowledge from older friends and hone the skills they will need to survive in this challenging landscape. It is our oldest Reintegration Unit, and an incredible model of success for our Orphans’ Project. David and Daphne raised their first orphans here in the 1950s, and through the decades, it has been home to more than 125 orphaned elephants. It is where Daphne’s beloved Eleanor, our original matriarch, amassed her own herd in the 1980s and 90s; where the first orphans raised through our Nairobi Nursery graduated; and where Emily, of BBC’s “Elephant Diaries” fame, found her place in the wild.

Already, we have welcomed a wonderful influx of new life this year

While orphans like Eleanor and Emily paved the way, Edie is part of our new guard. She was rescued in April 1999, after she tumbled into a well in northern Kenya. Her family desperately tried to free her, but when herdsmen and their cattle arrived with the rising sun, they were forced to leave her behind. This was a deeply traumatic event for Edie, who was just four months old at the time. She arrived at the Nursery a shell of a creature, shunning her new human-elephant family and withdrawing deeper into her misery. Some orphans simply choose to give up on life, and we feared that Edie would be one of those heartbreaking cases.

As my mum, Daphne Sheldrick, used to say, "To be a baby elephant must be wonderful."

Happily, time healed Edie’s wounds, and she chose life. After blossoming at the Nursery, she graduated to our Voi Reintegration Unit, where she was embraced by Emily’s ex orphan herd. As a youngster, the Keepers had always described Edie as a “confident and independent little elephant”. These qualities became even more striking with age. While she remained part of Emily’s herd for many years, Edie eventually felt confident enough to form a splinter group with her best friend and far more fiery counterpart, Mweya.

Edie (left) has always been a very beautiful and deeply beloved elephant

It must also be said that Edie is a great beauty. During her dependent days, she was the object of many crushes among our orphan bulls. As she got older, she always attracted a coterie of admirers. And so, we were surprised — but not entirely shocked — when she gave birth to her first baby, Ella, at the tender age of ten, which is very young for an elephant. Her second daughter, Eden, arrived in 2015, followed by her third calf and first son, Eco, in 2019. Given that the gestation period of elephants is a staggering 22 months and they usually wait several years between babies, we weren’t expecting an imminent addition to Edie’s family — but how wrong we were.

As a mother of four, Edie's babies will help her raise her newest addition

And with that, I circle back to where we began: how we have experienced the bounty of Voi in a particularly special way this year. Every year, after the long rains have arrived, Edie and co. make their annual pilgrimage home. They tend to show up around the Christmas holidays and remain in the area for a month or more, indulging in the newly lush conditions and catching up with their human-elephant family at Voi. During this year’s homecoming, we were delighted to discover that their herd had grown by one: Icholta, a fellow 1999 rescue and a longstanding member of Edie’s herd, had given birth to her second baby, who we named Izzy.

As we basked in the joy of a new addition to our extended family, we couldn’t help but notice that Edie had a conspicuously round belly. All signs indicated that, improbable as it might seem, she too had a new arrival on the horizon! Sure enough, in the waning hours of 26th January, our Voi Keepers were treated to the nighttime debut of her brand-new baby boy. Enzo, as we christened him, is a spritely little fellow, full of vim and vigor.

Edie's reappearance also inspired Kenia's semi-independent group to move to the wild

Enzo’s older brother, Eco, was born within weeks of Mweya’s baby, Mwitu. The pair have grown up with a wonderful, sibling-like bond. Already, all signs indicate that Enzo and Izzy are on the same track. They spend their days cavorting and tumbling through the tall grasses, taunting each other into games of tag before collapsing into a tandem nap. They are living, breathing examples of bliss in its purest form.

Over at Voi, our dependent herd also experienced a reshuffle

Incredibly, these tiny elephants have completely transformed our dependent herd. For quite some time, Kenia has been the undisputed matriarch of our Voi orphans. At 14 years old, she was still exploring her independence at an age when Edie was raising her first wild-born baby. However, we must always remember that reintegration is a very personal journey. Kenia and her group of older friends originally transitioned to the wild in 2020. Tragedy struck later that year, when their beloved Nelion was killed by lions. Deeply shaken, they circled back to Voi, where they could rebuild their confidence surrounded by the support of their Keepers. They spent last year tiptoeing back towards independence, embarking on unchaperoned foraging missions during the day, before returning to the comfort zone of their stockades at night. We knew they would hear the call of the wild again, when the time was right.

Reintegration is a deeply personal journey, shaped by an orphan's personality and past experiences

At last, that time has arrived. Bolstered by the reappearance of Edie and co — and, no doubt, lured by the temptation of two brand-new babies — Kenia, Ndii, Ishaq-B, Araba, Ndoria, Tundani, Mashariki, Naipoki and Panda decided they were ready to reclaim their independence. They have linked up with Edie’s ex orphan herd, where they seem to be thriving. For years, Kenia and her girlfriends were the Voi leaders. Now, they get to be the students, learning from the likes of Edie, Mweya, and Icholta. They are incredibly diligent nannies to little Izzy and Enzo, lovingly observing their every move. When Edie's herd recently departed Voi, lured deeper into the park by surprise rain showers, Kenia and her group left with them. Finally, they feel ready to reclaim their place in the wild.

Mbegu (right) has taken on the role of matriarch with gusto

Of course, their departure also shook things up among the 16 remaining members of our dependent herd. This was the moment Mbegu had been waiting for, ever since she graduated to Voi back in 2018. Like Edie, she is a born matriarch, a subtle combination of flinty determination and incredible empathy. Even as a baby, we knew Mbegu had the “it factor.” Now, her leadership skills are fully unleashed. Interestingly, the likes of Suswa, Rorogoi, and Mudanda are several years older than Mbegu, but they allowed her to assume the mantle of matriarch without protest.

Little Lemeki and Thamana are Voi's newest additions

Still, new beginnings continued to spring forth. In January, Voi welcomed its newest graduates, Lemeki and Thamana. These babies were orphaned fresh out of the womb, with all the odds stacked against them. Indeed, it was for Lemeki that we established our Kaluku Neonate Nursery, so that we might give our youngest and most vulnerable orphaned elephants the best possible chance of survival. Over the years, they have flourished. Lemeki emerged as hurricane in elephant form, Thamana as the gentle wind that flutters in her wake. She is a queen, he is her humble courtesan. They are like chalk and cheese, but absolutely inseparable.

Naturally, all the Voi orphans were delighted to have two newcomers in their midst

As the time came for Lemeki and Thamana to embark on the next step in their reintegration journeys, Voi was the natural destination. Lemeki was particularly in need of enhanced socialisation, as she had become a bit too accustomed to being the queen of her castle. For her entire life, she had run the show at Kaluku (and would have it no other way!). At three years old, we knew she would benefit from the influence of older friends and mentors.

And so, with their favourite Kaluku Keeper by their side, Lemeki and Thamana made the journey deep into Tsavo East. They became instant celebrities at Voi. Indeed, the level of adoration is almost comical: Neither baby can walk a step without being smothered in a trunk hug or flanked by a pack of devotees. Like all the orphans who have come before them, Lemeki and Thamana will spend many years in the supportive embrace of Voi, learning the ways of the wild at their own pace.

In a matter of weeks, our Voi herd has experienced so many wonderful developments

That is why I love the rains. Over the course of a few weeks, we have experienced an environmental shift: a landscape come to life after a brutal dry season, reinvigorated and reinvented. At the same time, we have also witnessed new beginnings on a personal scale. There is Edie, who came to us a broken elephant but is now a beautiful matriarch and a loving mother of four calves. There is Kenia, who experienced a heartbreaking setback, but is bravely forging ahead with her group’s wild journey. There is Mbegu, our steely leader, who finally has the opportunity to shine. And there is Lemeki, our wide-eyed girl who is just realising that a wonderful, wild world awaits her.

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 below.
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