From David and Daphne’s early days in Tsavo, we raised orphans of almost every species imaginable.
When you think of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, elephants are probably the first creature that comes to mind. There’s a reason they are synonymous with our work; in our time, we have raised more than 261 orphaned elephants, helping them flourish and eventually reclaim their place in the wild.
However, elephants aren’t the only creatures for whom we provide a lifeline. From David and Daphne’s early days in Tsavo, we raised orphans of almost every species imaginable. My childhood is dotted with fond memories of the menagerie we welcomed into our fold, from ‘Baby’ the eland to ‘Stub’ the rhino. As I grew up, so did these orphans, eventually spreading their proverbial wings (and sometimes literal, in the case of orphans like sacred ibis ‘Shabby’) and transitioning from our care.
It is a bittersweet moment when this day comes, as each orphan has a cherished place in our hearts and becomes an integral part of our lives. However, there is truly nothing more fulfilling than seeing these vulnerable babies blossom through the years and, in their own time, return to their kind in the wild. This month, I would like to share my thoughts on a very special orphan, a giraffe who came through our doors when he was just days old and recently took a momentous step towards a life back in the wild. Many of you know him by name, but for those who don’t, allow me to introduce you to Kiko, a treasure among our Nursery herd.
– Angela Sheldrick
It’s a call I will never forget. On the morning of 19th September 2015, Dr Bernard Rono, the KWS veterinarian who heads the SWT-funded Meru Mobile Vet Unit, reported that KWS rangers had rescued a tiny, days-old Reticulated giraffe on the boundary of Meru National Park. The fate of his mother remains a mystery, but this was an area beset with human-wildlife conflict, so one can surmise.
I’m proud of how adeptly our team sprung into action. This was the first time our Keepers had been involved in the rescue of an orphaned giraffe, yet they handled the tricky process masterfully. To protect his delicate neck, it was imperative that his neck remained upright at all times, they hastily modified the usual elephant-rescue tarpaulin to cocoon the precious cargo during the one-hour flight from Meru to Nairobi. For his part, the giraffe seemed happy to place his life in our hands, calmly surveying the proceedings from his makeshift cradle. We named him Kiko, after the area where he was rescued.
We see plenty of unusual things at the Nursery, but the sight of five Keepers unload what at first looked like a swathe of canvas from the truck — and then clocking a long spotted neck extending from its center, with a tiny face and curious round eyes taking it all in — is something that one doesn’t soon forget! Kiko soon fell into the swing of things, taking his bottle with ease and embracing life at the Nursery.
Around the time that he was rescued, we also welcomed an influx of infant elephant orphans into our fold. Kiko seemed unfazed to be the only giraffe among them, happily joining them for their daily routine. And so, our little giraffe grew up among a pint-sized posse that included the likes of Ambo, Tamiyoi, and Jotto.
As the years drew on, Kiko grew up in every which way: in height, in presence, and certainly in personality! He indisputably ruled the roost at the Nursery, wavering between affectionate and obstinate, doing exactly what he wanted — and usually, the opposite of what anyone else wanted. Some days, he would wake up in a mood to remain close to his human family and was reluctant to step outside the compound; other days, his beleaguered Keepers had to try all their tricks to tempt him back from the forest. Sometimes, Nursery Head Keeper Edwin would be working away at his desk, only to see a long neck swoop through the doorway — and sure enough it was Kiko, checking in on everyone’s activities! Kiko was also partial to spending time in the workshop pestering our mechanics hard at work, and the tighter the spot the more determined he was to investigate. While his antics occasionally exasperated his elephant friends, Kiko seemed to prefer their company above all else. Whenever he came across wild giraffes whilst out browsing in the Nairobi National Park, he would only approach them if the elephant babies walked with him as well.
While Nairobi National Park is home to a large wild giraffe population, we knew that this could never be a forever home for our Kiko. You see, he is a Reticulated giraffe, while Nairobi’s resident population is Masai giraffe. So, more than a year ago, we put the plan in motion to translocate Kiko to Sirikoi, a favourable place ideally situated adjacent to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Of course, because things are rarely straightforward when it comes to Kiko, several roadblocks presented themselves.
First, in the early hours of 23rd January 2019, a lioness somehow scaled the 16-foot posts of Kiko’s night stockade. A Keeper soon heard the commotion and bravely intervened, but in that time, the lioness inflicted some damage on our precious boy. It wasn’t long before Kiko recovered fully, but then we were beset by four months of extensive rains — a miracle for our country, but hardly ideal conditions to relocate a giraffe by road.
At long last, on the morning of 17th March, the time had come. I shared the full details of Kiko’s translocation here, which I encourage you to read if you’re interested in the full account. To sum up the sentiment of everyone involved, this day was approached with no small measure of trepidation. After all, translocating a nearly full-size giraffe along an eight-hour journey by road is a truly towering task. However, we were well prepared and I am proud to say the move went by without a hitch. I was part of the convoy with my two adult sons Taru and Roan that escorted Kiko to Sirikoi, and it was absolutely incredible to watch it all unfold. While pedestrians and motorists were left gaping at the sight of a giraffe breezing down the highway, Kiko was a cool customer and acted like this was an everyday occurrence. It wasn’t unlike his reaction to being rescued, all those years ago!
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is a place of picturesque beauty, and it seemed to capture Kiko’s interest as we drove through its sweeping plains. Among the many wildlife sightings were herds of Kiko’s own kind, reticulated giraffes. While everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief when we pulled into Sirikoi, our unflappable giraffe strode out of his moving crate like it was no big deal and promptly began feasting on the vegetation around him. To ensure that Kiko’s new home felt familiar, we built a custom stockade that mirrored his accommodations at the Nursery. This too he embraced without hesitation, happily tucking into a milk bottle.
Sirikoi has many merits, but its greatest comes in the form of someone who looks remarkably like Kiko. You see, it is already home to an orphaned giraffe, a lovely female named Nditu who has also been hand-raised from infancy. At eight years old, she is four years Kiko’s senior, and it was our greatest hope that she would serve as a friend and mentor of sorts.
It was immediately clear that our hopes were well-placed. After the initial surprise at finding another giraffe in her compound, Nditu welcomed Kiko into her world. She behaves much like an older sister around him, remaining close by and acting like an excellent role model. Because she has free run of the place, Nditu could very easily choose to move off and do her own thing, but she seems delighted to have a new friend. Looking at Kiko, the feeling is mutual. To see our boy, who was so shy around the giraffe he encountered in Nairobi National Park that he would cower behind his Keepers, already developing a lovely friendship with his own kind is truly momentous, and in time I feel sure this special friendship aided by the fact they are bedmates at night in their adjoining stockades, will only grow stronger in the weeks, months and years ahead.
While our Nursery herd has lost its lankiest member — and we will miss him dearly — I am delighted to see him embark on this next chapter. Kiko is a giraffe of two worlds, and it is our hope that he will eventually transition towards a more independent life, but at Sirikoi he certainly has the best of both worlds. If we know one thing about him, it is that things in Kiko’s orbit rarely move in a straight line, and he will undoubtedly continue to lead us through twists and turns. However, this move marks a momentous step in his reintegration journey, and I could not be prouder of everyone who pulled it off. Kiko’s Keeper from the Nursery, Simon, will remain with him at Sirikoi, providing him with the care and guidance he needs to continue to flourish. I also want to take this moment to thank all our supporters and especially Kiko’s adoptive parents. For without you, that little giraffe we swaddled up in a tarpaulin wouldn't be where he is today, a majestic fellow taking strides towards a wild life.
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.