The Brilliance of Voi

Published on the 30th of July, 2020

Every year, the dry season introduces difficulties. However, even as we steel ourselves for the inevitable challenges that lie ahead, we must also focus on the positives to be found.

In Tsavo, these silver linings present themselves in a rich hue of red: our orphans, framed by the vibrant earth of Tsavo, learning how to live as wild elephants. This month, join me as we immerse ourselves in the brilliance of Voi.

- Angela Sheldrick

The Brilliance of Voi

The dry season brings about a beautiful new palette. This is a palette synonymous with Tsavo, all smokey greys, peaches, and taupes, punctuated by strokes of brilliant red earth. We have not seen this landscape for a long time, due to this year’s extensive rains, but conditions shifted quickly in the past two months. The grasses that had blanketed the landscape in undulating shades of green are now bone-dry, transforming Tsavo into a veritable tinder box. And as such, another, more jarring shade of red has recently dominated the landscape: the blaze of bushfires.

Bushfires are always a harsh reality in a place as seasonally arid as Tsavo, but they have been particularly relentless this year. Already, two swept uncomfortably close to home for our Voi orphans. From Mzinga Hill, where our Voi Reintegration Unit sits, one could see smoke billowing ominously on the horizon. Had the fires blazed out of control, they would have destroyed vital feeding ranges, which would have had devastating consequences — not only for the area’s wildlife, but also for our own orphans. Fortunately, our teams are well-versed in firefighting, and working with the KWS, they were able to avert disaster. The fires were contained on the western boundary of Tsavo East, but not before destroying huge swathes of the Irima Plains. That area will not recover until the next rains arrive in November, but crucially, wildlife’s key feeding haunts and drinking points were left unscathed.

The aftermath of one of the bushfires that swept across Tsavo this month

The dry season is not all drama and devastation. Indeed, as further testament to the resilience of our natural world, there are moments of joy to be found around every corner. We see this every day at our Voi Reintegration Unit, where the orphans have been treated to an increased number of visiting elephants. The wild herds in the area quickly cottoned onto the routine of the Trust’s water bowser, which they know religiously tops up the water trough and mud bath each day. Now, the wild elephants hover nearby, waiting to glimpse the bowser making its way over. The moment they spot it rounding the eastern slope of Mzinga Hill, they congregate under the wide branches of the delonix tree, patiently waiting for their water deposit.

Our Voi orphans are relishing all the wild interactions they have been having as of late

This is a special time for our orphans. Elephants are a social species, and they relish the opportunity to forge new friendships with wild herds. All the better if they come with a baby in tow; our girls are visibly delighted by pint-sized visitors and many push their luck in their attempts to get close to them. Some wild mothers are more accommodating than others, but those who are wary of the orphans interacting with their little ones are probably just aware of their kidnapping tendencies! We often see our orphans trying to sneak off with a wild baby, waiting for that precious window of opportunity when the mother and her hawk-eyed nannies are momentarily distracted. Of course, their techniques are hardly subtle, and it is never long before the calf is whisked back into their family’s care.

We wonder if this behaviour is a symptom of our orphans losing their own families at such an early age, and in their eagerness to start their own families, they try to abduct babies they find in their midst. More likely, this is an indication of the whole species’ commitment to family, as we frequently witness wild elephants trying to spirit away our orphans. Of course, our ultimate goal is for each of our charges to transition from our care and return to the wild, but this must be at the right time, when they are no longer milk-dependent and can hold their own against the challenges and threats they will face in Tsavo. We often find that wild friends try to accelerate the process!

Elephants are very social creatures, and they are particularly enamoured by little babies

We experienced this recently, when Mashariki, one of the girls in our Voi herd, was kidnapped by a visiting herd. It happened unbeknownst to her Keepers, which is quite easy at the moment, given the volume of wild elephants converging at the Voi mud bath. We scoured the landscape, but days stretched into weeks, and she was nowhere to be found. At eight years old, Mashariki could certainly survive in the wild, but orphans usually strike out in the company of fellow orphan friends. And then, just as mysteriously as she vanished, she came back to us. A little more than a month after her disappearing act, Mashariki ambled up to the Voi mud bath with a newfound confidence and spring in her step. While she seemed relieved to be home, she was clearly chuffed by the taste of the wild that she experienced.

The formidable crossed-tusked matriarch is an elephant who is not to be messed with

It is always interesting to witness how the orphans behave in the presence of wild visitors. Mbegu continues to impress us in this respect. Far from being timid and deferential, as her peers typically are, she has no compunction about asserting her leadership. When she feels that visiting matriarchs are acting overly cocky or forceful around “her” mud bath, little Mbegu takes them on matriarch-to-matriarch. There is one formidable female, easily recognisable because of her distinctive crossed tusks, who is known for her aggressive tendencies. Mbegu must be aware of her reputation, as the orphans and Keepers give her a wide berth, but that didn’t stop her from trying to take her on. While she was ultimately forced to retreat, the fact that she was even willing to stand up to this matriarch demonstrates that our “tiny seed” (Mbegu means “seed” in Swahili) is growing into a force of nature herself.

Our Keepers have a front row seat — indeed, a starring role — to our orphans' daily progress

Tamiyoi is another orphan who is blossoming through these wild interactions. It has not been three months since she graduated from the Nursery, but already she is confident seeking out the company of visiting elephants and happily spends hours in their midst. This is in stark contrast to Tagwa, who made the journey to Voi with Tamiyoi. Despite the fact that she is older, she remains reluctant to fraternise and instead chooses to hover around her human family when wild herds are visiting.

As these girls show, every orphan is different and explores elephant society at a pace that works for them. They certainly aren’t wanting for opportunities; many days this month, over 100 elephants came by during the two-hour window of time that the orphans are at the mud bath. Our Keepers have a front row seat to the shenanigans that ensue, and as a result, they are becoming familiar with many of the wild personalities. Crucially, they also see the important bonds being forged between our Voi orphans and Tsavo’s wild herds.

Despite the challenges the dry season presents, it is also a brilliant reminder of the natural world's resilience

And so, amidst the threat of bushfires and the other challenges wrought by the dry season, we must not lose sight of the miracles happening every day. For it truly is miraculous that these orphans, many of whom have been in our care since they were weeks or even days old, are so seamlessly accepted by their wild counterparts. This is as evident in Mashariki’s abduction as it is in Mbegu’s standoffs, and even in the more mundane interactions we see around the water trough and mud bath. Tsavo’s brilliant red earth serves as the perfect stage for these daily productions, culminating in one momentous achievement: orphaned elephants, who came so close to losing it all, reclaiming their birthright.

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 be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please subscribe here.

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