Nighttime at Kaluku

Published on the 29th of February, 2024

A series of nighttime images we recently captured at Kaluku (which you will find below) inspired this edition of Field Notes.

It struck me how the setting sun ushers in an entirely new scene — but one that is no less active, nor less interesting, than its daylight counterpart.

I am feeling this sentiment particularly keenly tonight: As I write this, a spectacular electrical storm is unfolding over the Yatta. Peals of thunder shake the ground, while arcs of lightning illuminate the night sky. (It is very unusual to receive rains this early, but El Niño has turned everything on its head.)

Earlier this evening, sitting at the dinner table, we heard the telltale chatter of baboons. Suspicions raised, we grabbed a torch and shone it down towards the Athi River. Sure enough, the spotlight revealed four lions roaming on the sandy shoreline below. As we go to sleep tonight, we know we are not alone — we never are in Tsavo!

– Angela Sheldrick

Nighttime at Kaluku

At our Kaluku Field Headquarters, we wake up with the rising sun. Its first rays peek over the Yatta Plateau, saturating the compound in a gentle glow. As the day progresses, the giant orange orb makes its westward arc overhead, ultimately coming to rest behind the airstrip. When it is clear, the golden silhouette of Mount Kilimanjaro is the last thing you see before the sky fades to black.

And then, it is time for the day’s second act — nighttime.

Nighttime conjures up visions of sleep and stillness. In some ways, that is accurate. The orphans are safely tucked in their stables and stockades, the team is resting for the day ahead, and diurnal animals have found a quiet place to spend the dark hours.

But pause in the still night air, and you will find that the show goes on. Chinks of light shine through the wooden slats in the stable block, inviting you to peek inside. Each bedroom is stocked with bunches of freshly collected greens for the orphans to snack on — in fact, it is often difficult to spot the elephant amidst the jungle! Of course, they also have freshly mixed milk bottles to look forward to, which are fed every three hours, day and night.

Listen closely, and you will hear the sound of music wafting through the air. The Keepers have found that music helps many of the smallest, neonate orphans fall asleep. Each stable has its own unique soundtrack: One elephant likes country, another enjoys radio tunes. The Keepers add to this with their own songs and soothing words.

At Kaluku, the youngest orphans room with a dedicated Keeper. While the Keepers sleep in a bunk bed perched above the orphans (they have to sleep too, after all!), a wiggling trunk often prompts them down to earth. They sit with their little roommate until they fall back asleep, rubbing behind their ears and soothing them with lullabies.

Some newly rescued babies really struggle to fall asleep inside a stable. When that is the case, their Keeper drags a mattress out on the lawn, where they rest beneath the open sky. Only once the little elephant has settled into a dreamlike state do they shepherd them back inside, where they sleep soundly for the rest of the night.

Chamboi, the orphaned black rhino, has his own bedtime routine. Rhinos are a particular species, and he is no different. Every night, he must be tucked into his cherry red blanket — no other blanket will do. Unlike Apollo, who perched beneath his mattress like a camper inside a tiny tent, Chamboi prefers to curl up in a certain corner of his stable, where he has a view of the night sky outside.

But the orphans and their Keepers aren't the only ones who are awake. Senior management is on-call day and night. I have always been a light sleeper — and thankfully so! Should there be any emergencies, or even the slightest irregularity in an orphan’s condition, I am ready to spring into action.

Over in the Operations Room, the night shift is also burning the midnight oil. As our field presence has continued to grow, so have our hours. SWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Teams often conduct night patrols and ambushes, striking when poachers are most active. While the majority of our operations take place during the day, it is not uncommon for an orphan rescue or a veterinary treatment to extend into the night. For the planned and unplanned, the Operations Rooms is online to monitor teams’ movements and respond to any live reports.

And of course, the wild world has its own nighttime rhythm. Kaluku sits in the heart of the Tsavo Triangle, an extension of Kenya’s largest national park. The same animals found within Tsavo East National Park also call Kaluku home. On any given day, one might see lions, elephants, buffalos, zebras, elephants, kudus, leopards, giraffes, or even wild dogs.

Over the years, we have become somewhat of a sanctuary for Kaluku’s resident plains game. As dusk approaches, a zebra family makes their way to the lawn by the staff quarters. They graze for a while, before folding their striped legs beneath them and lying in the grass.

Over by the aircraft hangers, a large herd of impala fans out across the airstrip. Calves cavort and kick in the dust, under the watchful eyes of their mothers. Every once in a while, a buck might snort in alarm, but usually it is nothing more than a few waterbucks emerging from the bush to join them.

However, their vigilance is well-placed. Kaluku is very much the wilderness, a place where any creature can roam. Just the other night, a Keeper awoke to light shuffling outside his tent. He looked up just in time to see a lion making off with one of his sandals!

Even when we can’t see them, we know our wild friends are there: Elephants feast in the nearby bush, munching on branches and emitting deep rumbles. Bush babies spring through the treetops, their tiny eyes shining like a pair of lasers. The guttural call of a leopard cuts across the night air, while genet cats slink towards their quarry. It is one of the most magical experiences, to simply be still and let this symphony of nighttime life sweep over you.

Before we know it, the nocturnal sounds subside as fingers of sunlight begin to stretch above the Yatta Plateau. The babies stir in their stables, the team laces up their boots and buttons their uniforms. And just like that, another night in Tsavo is put to rest.

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.

Supporters like you make our conservation work possible. We deeply appreciate any contribution you are able to make. Your donation will be directed where it is needed most, as we work to secure Kenya's great landscapes and protect the creatures who call them home.

Share the article