The Triumphs of Three Ithumba Girls

Published on the 4th of July, 2024

Some years stand out as extraordinary rescue years. 2016 was one such year, when a devastating drought, poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and assorted natural causes converged to drive an influx of orphans into our care.

This month, I wanted to reflect on three Ithumba girls who were rescued during that year. These orphans were rescued from across Kenya, from the mountain slopes of northern Samburu to the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro to the plains of Tsavo.

To tell their stories, we spoke with the people who played formative roles in their rescues. These stories were originally shared in The Unsung Heroes, our 2018 coffee table book celebrating orphaned elephants and their rescuers.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Triumphs of Three Ithumba Girls

Rescued 28 November 2016, Tsavo

In 2016, Kenya was in the grips of a terrible drought. During a routine patrol, a tiny elephant was spotted standing beside her mother’s body, who had collapsed on the plains of Tsavo East National Park. The pilor immediately reported his sighting to the SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, which at the time was headed by KWS veterinarian Dr Jeremiah Poghon. Together with a team of SWT Keepers and SWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Team, they went to help the two elephants.

Sadly, they were too late to save the mother. She had obviously been struggling for a long time and had finally succumbed to starvation, which is all-too-common among elephants during the drought. By the time the team arrived, she was barely breathing, while her desperate five-month-old baby stood by her side. Nevertheless, Dr. Poghon and the team tried to pull the mother into a sitting position, so they could treat her with rehydration and anti-shock drugs. However, it quickly became clear that she was too far gone to survive. In a cruel twist of roles, her calf was defiantly trying to protect her mother.

When Dr. Poghon realised the mother could not be saved, he made the difficult decision to euthanise her and put her out of her pain. As he reflected, ‘As managers of wildlife, we sometimes have to make very painful decisions. But if we shirk our responsibilities and we don’t do our job, we will be judged extremely harshly by the next generation.’

Her milk-dependent calf, would not survive long without her mother. However, during proceedings, she had walked over to a nearby herd and was now in their midst. This made the rescue much more complicated. The Anti-Poaching Team slowly used their vehicle to separate the calf, acting as a barrier between the herd and the Keepers. The team quickly captured and restrained Kuishi, loaded her into the vehicle, and drove her back to the Voi stockades, where Dr. Poghon placed her on a drip and rehydrants. Shortly thereafter, she was transported to the Nairobi Nursery.

Once at the Nursery, Kuishi embraced her new life and settled in easily. She relished the abundance of food that was provided for her, the friendship of the other orphans, and the constant care that the Keepers lavished on this indomitable little elephant. As Edwin Lusichi, Head Keeper at the Nursery, said of Kuishi at the time, ‘She came to us having experienced so many difficulties in her short life, but with us she found friends and emotional support. She is a shy girl who keeps to herself, and we feel that somewhere she is haunted by her mothers memory, but she is happy as she has made many friends who have experienced the same loss.’

The Voi keepers later went back to examine Kuishi’s mother and discovered that she was in her sixties and had no molars left. While this does not erase the tragedy of her demise, she lived a full life and — albeit exacerbated by the drought — died at a ripe old age.

Kuishi today:

Kuishi graduated to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit in May 2019. She is currently eight years old and, for now, remains dependent on our care. We believe that one little bull keeps her anchored to the dependent herd, while many of her agemates have gone wild: The moment young Esoit graduated to Ithumba, Kuishi adopted him as her ‘little brother.’ Poignantly, their rescue stories mirror each other’s: Like Kuishi, Esoit was found guarding the body of his mother, who also had to be put out of her suffering. Given how quickly and how firmly both elephants bonded, we feel certain that they have communicated their shared histories.

Kuishi has also taken a shine to recent graduates Mayan and Vaarti, who happen to be Esoit’s roommates. Esoit carefully monitors all her interactions with the new boys, beadily watching for any favouritism, but he will always be first in Kuishi’s heart.

Rescued 6 July 2016, Chyulu Hills

Initially, it was schoolchildren who spotted Esampu. Where the Chyulu and Amboseli ecosystems meet, a baby elephant had been seen on her own for several days. She was lingering by a shallow well, which was now just a muddy pool. They alerted their elders, who agreed to monitor the situation, hoping that her mother would return for her.

On the fourth day, however, community member Joyce Loiganya was out collecting firewood when she saw the little elephant again. She could see that the baby was weak and in distress. A few months prior, Big Life rangers had come to Joyce’s assistance when elephants tried to raid her shamba. She still had the phone number for their office, so she gave them a call.

As Joyce recalled, 'This baby elephant represents a livelihood to me as much as my shamba does. Elephants symbolise a different way of farming — I see it as no different from protecting my cows. I felt so sad for the baby elephant without its mother. After I called the rangers, I went back to my house for water and took it to the little elephant.'

When the Big Life Rangers arrived, Joyce led them to the little elephant. The exact circumstances that led to her abandonment remain unknown, but it is likely that her herd was chased away when they came to drink from a community well. Water is a scarce commodity for humans and wildlife alike during a drought, and competition over resources inevitably intensifies. Esampu had remained by the drying well, waiting for her mother to return for her, but the frightened elephants were long gone.

When the rangers arrived, they were greeted by a little elephant who was weak, thin, and very unhappy. They took off their boots and socks, rolled up their trousers, and waded into the mud to help her. Esampu was too spent to put up much of a struggle, and they were able to pull her out of the well easily. By this time, the SWT Keepers arrived and gave her a big bottle of milk and prepared her for the flight to Nairobi.

Human-wildlife conflict is a growing challenge, especially as weather patterns become increasingly unreliable. That is why SWT and fellow field organisations like Big Life have put such emphasis on conservation solutions that benefit the people who live alongside elephants.

Joyce’s words are testament to the success of these initiatives: ‘We have lived alongside elephants all my life and even long before that. They are part of the land with us and even though they can be destructive and damage our crops, they are now rewarding us. I have seen benefits through compensation, school bursaries, and tourism. Without elephants, we would not have had any of this. I tell my children we need to look after the elephants because they are our future source of livelihood.’

Speaking of futures — it didn’t take long for Esampu to embrace Nursery life. As Keeper Justus Kingoo remembered, ‘The frail and pathetic image that Esampu presented on arrival at the Nursery was only fleeting. She settled in in no time and became the naughtiest, most mischievous baby elephant there. We all, including the other orphans, had to keep a conscious bearing on her whereabouts because she liked to sneak up and push us over. Both orphans and Keepers are mindful of the presence of Esampu.’

Esampu today:

Esampu graduated to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit in June 2018. She was a rather young graduate, but it had become clear that she would benefit from the company of older elephants, who would teach her manners and keep her in line. We also worried about her wayward influence on younger orphans, if she remained at the Nursery: With 20 other babies in the Nursery at the time, we could not risk the creation of 20 Esampu clones!

In January 2023, Esampu decided to go wild. Given her own colourful character, it came as little surprise that she chose to link up with none other than the notorious Wendi and her ex-orphan herd. We felt this was a rather bold choice, given Wendi’s unpredictability, but she was very hospitable. Today, Esampu happily floats between ex-orphan groups and can often be found in the company of Mteto and Mundusi (who graduated with her to Ithumba) and other friends.

Sana Sana
Rescued 19 May 2016, Samburu

‘We helped the little elephant because she came and asked us to help her. She had chosen us. In our culture, that is a privilege. It is important to honour that.’ – Dipa Lenaya Ngera, Manager of Sabache Eco-Camp

The Samburu people have traditionally lived in harmony with the wildlife that shares their land. As pastoralists, they lead a simple life, subsisting on their cattle herds and following fresh pasture brought by the rains. They have always understood that the wildlife is as much a part of their extraordinary landscape as they are. As Dipa says, the Samburu are ‘rafiki ya ndovu’ — friends of the elephant.

In May 2016, an orphaned calf wandered into Sabache Eco Camp in Namunyak Conservancy. Antone Lemarle, a guide at Sabache, remembers, ‘She looked thin and unhappy and seemed in distress. We felt bad to see such a little elephant all on her own. We wanted to help but didn’t know how. We couldn’t feed her; she needed her mother’s milk.’

That night, camp staff awoke to the sound of the baby elephant screaming. Hyenas had come to attack her. They ran out with torches and were able to scare the predators away, but Sana Sana was terrified. She followed the staff into the camp and spent the night outside the kitchen tent. In the morning the little elephant remained close, and the following night, she again found sanctuary just outside the tents.

As Antone recalls, ‘Sana Sana would come towards the lights of the camp at night and stay outside our tents. She feared the lions and hyenas would attack again. We were happy to have her; she was so small and lonely, and we were glad to keep her company.'

This continued for a week. By day, Sana Sana hung outside the compound. When darkness fell, she ventured into camp, seeking the comfort of the staff. But this was clearly a temporary measure: The calf was less than a year old, which meant she needed milk and round-the-clock care if she was to survive. Dipa contacted me, and we quickly organised a rescue.

As it turned out, it was a very easy operation. By this time, Sana Sana was quite habituated to humans and desperately wanted their help. Her fracas with the hyenas had left her with festering wounds, and her skin was starting to sag around her skeletal body.

Upon arriving at the Nursery, Sana Sana was suspicious of the bottles. As soon as she got a taste of milk, however, she made a beeline for anything resembling a bottle and became very calm.

As Edwin, Head Keeper at the SWT Nursery, recalls, ‘Sana Sana is a charming little elephant with a very sunny nature. To this day we do not know the reason why she was robbed of her mother, but she certainly helped herself by seeking out elephant-friendly people and remaining close to them for protection.’

Sana Sana today:

Sana Sana graduated to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit in December 2018. Over the years, she rose through the ranks, and eventually emerged as a gentle leader of the herd. A little over a year ago, she decided to go wild in the company of her peers, Malkia, Kamok, Kauro, Mapia, Rapa, Ndiwa, and Pare. She wasted no time in trying to recruit her juniors to join her. A boy’s girl, she was especially persistent with Jotto, Naboishu, Sattao, Dololo, and Ambo.

Although Sana Sana is thriving in her newly wild life, she does get a bit nostalgic! One morning, the Ithumba Keepers were surprised to see two extra elephants lined up for the morning milk feed. It was none other than Sana Sana and Neshashi (who also recently went wild), standing expectantly with their trunks aloft, as if a bottle might magic its way into their mouths!

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.

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