Reintegrating an orphaned elephant back to the wild is a journey in every sense of the word. It begins the day we rescue the orphan, and it ends only when they have outgrown our care and chosen to reclaim their place among their own kind. Thus begins the next chapter in their story — one that, all well, will stretch into a long and full life.
This journey has unfolded countless times at our Voi and Ithumba Reintegration Units. However, as our newest unit, Umani Springs had not yet experienced the joy of an orphan completing their journey back to the wild. That all changed recently. This month, I would like to tell the story of our ‘Lone Ranger.’
– Angela Sheldrick
The Story of the Lone Ranger
Barely a week into 2014, the first act of a tragedy unfolded in Amboseli. A 26-year-old female named Zombe had become ill and dropped away from her herd. Accompanied only by her milk-dependent calf, they cut a tragic sight on the plains. SWT/KWS Sky Vets flew to the scene, but treatment was difficult given that the elephant had no obvious injuries or illnesses. The team administered long-acting antibiotics, hoping they would stave off her mysterious affliction.
Unfortunately, Zombe’s story was not to have a happy ending. Three weeks later, KWS reported that she had collapsed in a water hole. Her young calf remained by her side, gallantly trying to protect her from the leering hyenas who had started to circle in. We immediately mobilised Sky Vets and gathered a team of Keepers, knowing there was not a moment to spare. It seemed that Zombe had reached the point of no return, and try as he might, her calf could only hold off a pack of hungry hyenas for so long.
The team found Zombe partially submerged in the water, life slipping away with each laboured breath. Her calf was visibly confused and frightened, but still he stood by her side. With no realistic hope of recovery from her mysterious ailment, the kindest thing the KWS vet could do was end Zombe’s suffering. There was not a dry eye as the beautiful female drew her last breath.
While Zombe’s story had come to a close, her calf’s story was just beginning. We called him ‘Ziwa,’ which means waterhole in Swahili. It felt fitting, given that a waterhole set the stage for events that would change the course of his life.
Ziwa was a large, robust calf, as is typical of Amboseli elephants. He was only at the Nursery for a few months before he was ready to graduate to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit. Initially, Ziwa thrived in Tsavo. With the memory of his natal family still fresh in his mind, he loved meeting all the wild herds who passed through, relishing the company of so many generations of elephants.
But then, Ziwa took a turn for the worse. He was a slow elephant by nature; nothing could propel him beyond his leisurely operating mode and he always walked at the back of the herd. However, alarm bells sounded when he started to become worryingly lethargic and dull. After Ziwa’s condition deteriorated to the point of collapse, I made the decision to airlift him back to the Nursery. Time was of the essence, as he clearly needed closer veterinary oversight — and besides, he was growing so quickly that he soon wouldn’t fit inside the airplane!
Ziwa took his move back to Nairobi in stride. He walked into his Nursery bedroom as if he had never left, happily tucking into the pile of greens he found waiting for him. While his spirit remained strong, his condition continued to worsen. Grisly lesions sprung up all over his body and he developed oedema. After running a litany of tests, we established that Ziwa's problem was a blood parasite. It took time and rigorous veterinary attention, culminating in a last-ditch blood transfusion, but finally our boy turned the corner — and never looked back. Reflecting upon those harrowing, touch-and-go days where he hovered between life and death, I still marvel that Ziwa survived.
Ziwa spent the next several months convalescing in the supportive embrace of the Nursery. He became a protective big brother figure to his fellow orphans, particularly the younger females. I still remember how fond he was of little Roi, who was his nighttime neighbour. If he saw someone bullying her out in the forest, he would rush over to defend her. These moments were reminiscent of how he had protected his mother, even on death’s door. We recognised we had an exceptionally valiant bull in our midst.
At last, it was time for Ziwa to embark on his next chapter. While his health was now fully restored, we felt it was important to bring him to a gentle destination, a place that could support any remaining fragility. As it turned out, the answer lay within the Kibwezi Forest.
Ten months prior, we had established Umani Springs, our third and newest Reintegration Unit. At the time, two orphans had come into our care with injuries that would affect them for the rest of their lives. We knew Murera and Sonje could thrive as wild elephants, if they were only rewilded into the right environment. Umani Springs was our solution. Located in the Kibwezi Forest abutting Chyulu Hills National Park, it is a protected utopia where elephants never need to travel far for food and water.
Umani Springs was not limited to physically compromised orphans. Some graduated there alongside good friends; others, like Ziwa, had health setbacks and needed a gentle place where they could thrive. And so, our brave little bull made the journey to the Kibwezi Forest in the early hours of 15th April 2015. Ziwa was greeted by his old Nursery friends, Faraja, Jasiri, and Ngasha, who had graduated to Umani earlier that year, and the older girls, Lima Lima, Zongoloni, Quanza, Sonje, and Murera.
The Kibwezi Forest had an instantaneous effect on Ziwa. Within weeks, he had put on weight, his cheeks and belly rounding out in tandem. His appetite improved, boosting his energy with it, and before long he was greedily dashing after his milk bottle alongside the other orphans.
It must also be said that Ziwa became very spoiled! As the baby of the Umani herd, he was endlessly coddled by Murera, Sonje, and the other girls. When Mwashoti and Alamaya graduated to Umani the following year, Ziwa was less than hospitable, all-too-aware that the younger bulls dethroned him. For several months, he nursed his resentment through petty little pushes and shoves.
Despite his protestations, this was actually a personal growth opportunity for Ziwa. As Sonje and Murera focused their attention on the younger boys, he was pushed to expand his own boundaries. He started playing more with Faraja, Jasiri, and Ngasha, and then set his sights on establishing himself as the dominant bull of the herd. Whenever he acted ‘too big for his tusks,’ the females were quick to reprimand his behaviour and cut him down to size. Far from being punitive, this discipline was necessary; it taught Ziwa elephant etiquette, which is vital for any orphan who hasn’t had the benefit of growing up among their own herd.
While many younger orphans tend to shy away from wild elephants, Ziwa never had any such hesitation. Much as he did at Ithumba, he was very eager to meet wild friends in the Kibwezi Forest. Dashing ahead of the rest of the herd, he would surge forward to introduce himself. With his newly refined elephant manners, Ziwa easily forged friendships with the elephants of the Kibwezi Forest and Chyulu Hills.
By 2019, Ziwa was ready to begin the next chapter in his story. Joined by Faraja and Ngasha, and later Zongoloni and Jasiri, he started spending nights out in the forest. The Keepers would wake up to find his merry band waiting for their morning milk bottles outside the stockades, bright-eyed from their nocturnal adventures. We all marvelled at how Ziwa, who started as the baby of the herd, had morphed into such a competent ringleader. This was a particularly trailblazing role at Umani, as they were the inaugural ‘class’ and didn’t have any older, wild-living orphans to pave the way.
And thus, our ‘Lone Ranger’ was born. The Keepers gave Ziwa this nickname after seeing how independent he truly was. While most of the other semi-independent orphans (dubbed the ‘nightclubbers’) maintained close ties with the dependent herd, linking up with them every morning, Ziwa preferred to do his own thing. What began as the odd, daylong absence soon stretched into weeks away at a time.
Despite being a lone ranger, Ziwa remained very outgoing. When he linked up with the dependent herd, he often brought along a wild friend or two. Many orphans lack Ziwa’s extroverted confidence, so these chaperoned visits provided invaluable opportunities for the others expand their social circle. Always deferring to the matriarchs, Ziwa first introduced the newcomers to Lima Lima, Sonje, Zongoloni, Quanza, or Murera, vouching for his friends’ character and ensuring that their presence was welcome before introducing them to the rest of the herd. Over the years, Ziwa has become an incredible bridge between our dependent orphans and the local wild elephant population.
As I said before, an orphan does not transition to the wild in a single, decisive leap. Rather, it is a collection of steps, drawn from confidence and knowledge gathered over the years. However, one moment demonstrated that Ziwa had officially reclaimed his place among Kenya’s wild elephants.
One afternoon last October, an imposing bull appeared out of the trees. As he approached the Umani orphans, the Keepers were struck by his calm, self-assured demeanour. After witnessing his warm greeting with Zongoloni and Lima Lima, both girls embracing him with their trunks, they had a hunch: Could this mystery visitor be Ziwa, who had been away for quite some time? He was so large and rugged that they couldn't be sure. But then, they called out Ziwa's name and sure enough, he responded with a deep rumble! Remembering how small and vulnerable Ziwa had once been, the Keepers were indescribably proud to see the majestic bull who now stood before them.
Our ‘Lone Ranger’ continues to visit the Umani herd from time to time. Just as he was devoted to his mother, Ziwa is fiercely protective of his chosen family and makes a point to check on them. Sometimes, he strides up to the mud bath with a group of wild friends in tow; other times, we only catch a glimpse of him from the trees. He has been fully accepted by the elephants of the Kibwezi Forest and Chyulu Hills. Indeed, when Ziwa is among wild friends, it would be impossible to tell that he is an elephant raised by the human hand.
Ziwa’s story recently took a poignant twist. After becoming acquainted with many wild elephants over the years, he finally settled with a small family herd. This wonderful, nurturing group of females have completely taken Ziwa under their wing
Aside from a young male calf, Ziwa is the only bull in this herd. The Keepers report that he is entirely content among his new family. They sometimes pop by Umani for little visits, during which Ziwa takes the opportunity to catch up with the dependent orphans and his Keepers. However, the moment the wild elephants start to peel off, he joins them without hesitation. Ziwa has always been a protector of females, and we are delighted that he has finally found his place among such a loving group. Given that Ziwa was rescued from the surrounding Amboseli ecosystem, it is entirely possible that these elephants are his actual relatives.
While Ziwa’s reintegration journey has reached its conclusion, the rest of his life is just beginning. Meanwhile, many members of our Umani herd are following in his footsteps. In time, they too will take their place among Kenya’s wild elephants. Meanwhile, the Lone Ranger continues to thrive in his next chapter. His story has not been a straightforward one, addled with heart-wrenching tragedy and health scares along the way. And yet, Ziwa ended up exactly where he was always meant to be, patrolling the wilds of Kenya.