Since our inception, we have raised orphans as wildlife, not pets. (As Daphne used to say, we are merely custodians for the period that they need our help.) We support them through their vulnerable, milk-dependent years, exposing them to their natural world so they can reclaim their place in the wild when ready. It is a feeling of great accomplishment to see them living happy, free lives among their own kind, just as nature intended.
During the time they are with us, however, the most remarkable and often unusual ties bind our orphans together. Some of these bonds last a lifetime, others are but fleeting friendships that see them through to their next phase. These dynamics help us better understand the complex, intelligent, fascinating souls that make up our wild world. Their capacity for love and ability to find common ground is something we can only marvel at.
And so, this month is all about the ties that bind, delving into the special friendships that transcend species. These are but a few among so many extraordinary stories that have unfolded over the years.
– Angela Sheldrick
The Ties That Bind
For my entire life, I have bore witness to extraordinary friendships that exist between species. Really, they go deeper than just friendships — these are family ties. During my childhood in Tsavo, for instance, our family was much larger than just its human members. I grew up surrounded by an eclectic assortment of creatures, but three stand out in my memory: Bunty the impala, Jimmy the kudu, and my special friend, Baby the eland. This trio presided over the “Garden Gang” of orphans, as my mother affectionately called them. She and Bunty shared an exceptional bond. Even after all the orphans she rescued over the course of her life, Daphne would always say that Bunty was her favourite. One evening, she and David were walking back to their house when they heard Bundy snorting with urgent insistence. Daphne knew she was trying to warn them of something lurking in the shadows, and sure enough, when they shone their torches into the darkness, two pairs of glowing lion eyes peered out. It is not inconceivable that brave Bunty saved their lives that night, as Tsavo’s lions were notoriously bold during that era.
In the mid-1970s, Daphne was desperately trying to develop a milk formula to sustain Aisha, who was the youngest elephant to ever come into our care at the time. When she finally cracked the code, the effect on Aisha was transformative. The gaunt little elephant, who had been a shell of a creature for so long, began to fill out and liven up. On the first day she felt well enough to play, everyone celebrated — and I really mean everyone. The other orphans certainly knew that Aisha had been struggling, and recognised this momentous moment for what it was. The Honk family (our resident peacocks) began fluttering about, while Bunty, Jimmy, and Baby galloped to and fro, kicking up their heels in delight. Even our quartet of warthog piglets got caught up in the moment, scattering about with their tails aloft. Baby was so excited that she speared a flower basket with her horn and proceeded to run around with it still attached, as if wearing a festive headdress.
These stories aren’t anomalies, but vignettes of the bonds that unite our orphan herd across species and generations. Nearly 50 years have passed (not to mention hundreds of elephants successfully raised) since we celebrated Daphne’s milk formula breakthrough, but the same extraordinary friendships continue to unfold.
We see this all the time at the Nursery, given its regular influx of infant orphaned wildlife. Maxwell, the rhino, is its only long-term resident; given his congenital blindness he would not survive on his own and has a forever home with us. Black rhinos are solitary by nature and Max has always enjoyed his alone time, but he made an exception for Shabby. Shabby was an orphaned sacred ibis who we rescued as a chick. He was a great favourite of Daphne’s, and he also had a very special attachment to Max. In a friendship spanning eight years, they spent countless hours in each other’s company, the elegant white bird squatting close to the enormous black rhino whiling away endless hours together.
By contrast, giraffes are highly social creatures. Kiko exemplifies this, amassing a large and diverse friend group in the five years since we rescued him. During his Nursery days, he seemed unconcerned to be the sole giraffe among a herd of pint-sized elephants, happily joining the sturdy line of blanket-clad orphans for adventures in Nairobi National Park. Since his graduation to Sirikoi last year, he has only continued to forge more unusual friendships. He immediately bonded with their horses, an implacable group that don’t get riled up by his mischievous ways. Towards the end of his residency at the Nursery, the elephants would chase off Kiko with ears spread wide and trumpets blaring, knowing full well that wherever the giraffe went, mayhem usually followed. Interestingly, by not giving Kiko a reaction, Sirikoi’s horses seem to have unlocked the secret to deterring his wayward ways, and they all spend sedate afternoons browsing in each other's company. Kiko has met his match in Bun Bun, a brazen little bunny who invites herself into his stockade most evenings. These unlikely roommates spend their twilight hours munching on lucerne pellets together, completely unaware that there is anything strange about their situation.
Around the same time we rescued Kiko, Pea and Pod came into our care. These orphaned ostrich chicks were unexpectedly handed to our Keepers during an elephant rescue mission in northern Kenya. While Pod was always very independent, as male ostriches are wont to be, Pea adored her Nursery family. She would shepherd the baby elephants around with great importance, allowing them to suckle her legs and blanketing them protectively with her wings. We see echoes of Pea in Bristle, the orphaned ostrich we are currently raising at our Kaluku Field HQ. Bristle has grown very fond of Rukinga the oryx, and the pair often spend time resting side-by-side in the soft grass. While Bristle prudently gives Apollo a much wider berth, he often joins the rhino down at the mud bath for a wallow in companionable proximity.
The eclectic orphan herd at Kaluku reminds me of the “Garden Gang” of my youth. While Bunty once ruled the roost, we now have Sala and Sabassa, two female kudus who have long since reintegrated from our care yet remain an integral part of our family. As they grow up and hear the call of the wild, our orphans reclaim their place among their own kind. Reintegration is a unique journey for each individual, be it an elephant or an antelope. While some move off into the wilderness without a backwards glance, many feel a tug back to the place where they were raised. Bunty certainly fell into this category, as do Sala and Sabassa. They have given birth to several offspring of their own, but they also feel compelled to play a part in raising the orphans who come through Kaluku.
Interspecies friendships are very common in our world, but some still take us by surprise. Over at Voi, we are seeing the most remarkable bond blossoming between Ngilai the elephant and Ivia the buffalo. These two are like brothers, drawn together by a shared love of play. Not a single day passes without one seeking out the other for friendly pushing matches and races. After exhausting all the games in their repertoire, they often settle down for a cuddle. It is quite incredible to witness Ngilai gently wrapping his trunk around Ivia, one friend hugging another.
There is a lot to be learned from animals. They ignore their obvious differences, focusing instead on the deeper connections that exist. That is not to say they aren’t choosy; animals can be very selective about who they invite into their inner circle. However, when they sense a kindred spirit, they embrace them without hesitation. These interspecies friendships evolve and often taper off as the orphans grow up and become established among their own kind, as is the natural way of things. However, the bonds they develop as youngsters help them hone qualities and skills they will need in their wild lives. And after all, isn’t that what friendship is all about? Friends are the figures who support us and who shape us, who help us become the best versions of ourselves. What a privilege it is to witness — and indeed, to be a part of — the loving ties that bind the orphans in our care.
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.