Breathing New Life into Ithumba

Published on the 25th of July, 2019

In this month’s note, we delve into the magical transformation of Tsavo’s jewel.

As we embark on another dry season — one that will probably last us into November — I’ve been thinking about the vital role that elephants play as a keystone species. They can certainly make their presence felt, but much of their contributions are surprisingly subtle: it is elephants who dig in the sand for water when the Tiva River dries up each year, who clear the dense Camiphora bushland to encourage grasslands so that more herbivores can flourish, whose well-worn trails through the bush act as effective catchments for rainwater. Their absence is felt by species across the spectrum, and conversely, all life begins to thrive once elephants return. This has never been more evident than in Ithumba. In this month’s note, we delve into the magical transformation of Tsavo’s jewel.

– Angela Sheldrick

Breathing life into Ithumba:

Since Tsavo East’s inception, Ithumba has been its crown jewel. My father, David, chose it as the park’s headquarters in the north during his time as the founding warden of Tsavo East. While very necessary infrastructure was put in place throughout the park, Ithumba and the northern area was deliberately shielded from mankind’s incursions so that it could remain a truly wild area.

It remained that way for nearly thirty years. However, in the decades following David’s death — when poaching reached its height in Kenya — Ithumba and the north was particularly hard hit. With virtually no oversight during those fraught times, illegal activity was rampant and poaching went unchecked. Elephants realized that this area was now rife with threats, and all but abandoned the north. Things began to improve in the late nineties, when poaching was curbed and wildlife numbers began to increase. Elephants, however, remained cautious about venturing north of the Tiva River. They clearly hadn’t forgotten the dark memories of the old days.

In 2004, when we were preparing to establish a new Reintegration Unit, Ithumba immediately came to mind. The vast, unspoilt wilderness that Ithumba offers simply doesn’t exist in Kenya anymore, and we knew that this is where orphaned elephants could hone their wild instincts and ultimately return to a free life. Our top priority was to make sure that this area was the sanctuary befitting the orphans and their wild kin. So, working in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and with the support of other organizations, we turned to the task of making Ithumba hospitable for both wildlife and the people looking out for them. This was no small task: To secure Ithumba’s Northern boundary, we installed a 63-kilometre electric fenceline, which continues to be patrolled daily. We also assisted in reestablishing the KWS headquarters in the North, funding necessities like rangers’ accommodation, offices and workshops, fuel tanks, water catchment tanks, desalination and the installation of a generator.

Throughout all of this, we wondered — and yes, worried — whether the orphans would have ample interactions with wild elephants, given the hesitation herds had about the area. We even mulled over whether we would need to establish mobile stockades along the Tiva River to ensure that these crucial interactions would take place. Fast forward fifteen years, and today it is hard to imagine that those conversations even took place. Ithumba has morphed into a haven for elephants, with the wild herds secure in the knowledge that this is a place where they are once more protected and even a place where they can come for help. We watched this all unfold over the years, beginning with the first bold elephant scouts who staked out Ithumba and visited the first orphans there.

Wild bull Rafiki was very much the catalyst for this change. When he first appeared on the scene, he chose to become a permanent fixture and remained with the orphans for three months. In fact, he was so comfortable with our presence that he would sleep outside the stockades at night, resting his giant head on a mound beside the gates. He grew familiar with the Keepers, never interfering with them, but carefully observing the orphans and all their routines. After those initial three months, he vanished — only to return soon thereafter with a handful of bull sidekicks! They too learned the ropes, disappearing and then reappearing with more and more friends in tow.

That was how it all began. Word spread once the bulls were truly confident that Ithumba was again a safe haven, and slowly but surely, female herds began to converge as well. Over the years, the wild herds and our own herds have become one inextricably linked family, as Benjamin, our Head Keeper in Ithumba, can attest to. Our old faithfuls return year after year to share the dry season with us, confident in the fact that they will find safe drinking sources and ample food in the area. They have become very attached to the Ithumba orphans and the Keepers, and have fully familiarized themselves with all the routines — so much so that it’s often difficult to differentiate between wild elephants and the orphans! Many wild elephants sporting injuries have approached the water trough, so that they might be treated by our team. In recent years, these types of visits have thankfully become less frequent, but it is no coincidence that they know where to come for help.

Trust is at the root of elephants’ return to Ithumba. They are safe in the knowledge that we are there to protect them, and we work tirelessly behind the scenes to deliver on this promise: The Trust funds anti-poaching operations in the northern area of Tsavo, with two full time de-snaring teams complemented by KWS Rangers, and we have our two mobile teams that focus their efforts in the area during the dry months, when human-wildlife conflict escalates. Ithumba is meticulously patrolled by air as well, and our helicopters give us and KWS the unique advantage of being able to place boots on the ground anytime, anywhere. These measures, coupled with our Canine Unit, have made a huge difference to the area — and not just to elephants. Now that the bushmeat trade is no longer unchecked, the buffalo herds on the Tiva River have multiplied tenfold and every other species has flourished in the past decade and a half.

It is a great triumph to see Ithumba transformed into what it is today. Nothing makes me prouder than watching the elephants in action: dependent orphans inquisitively meeting wild friends, bulls lazing in the mud bath, ex orphans arriving with their families in tow, calves gamboling between the legs of their nannies. At last, Ithumba is back to being the jewel of conservation it was always meant to be.

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 email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with our staff, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.

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