In a place like Tsavo, the waterhole is both a gathering place and a lifeforce. It is where all manner of creatures congregate and memorable stories unfold.
This month, I would like to share an extraordinary event that recently played out at the baobab waterhole in Voi. In a lifetime spent with elephants, this moment is yet another occasion that illustrates just how remarkable this species is, and how they continue to astound us — in the best possible way.
– Angela Sheldrick
Where Miracles Unfold
Voi sits in a strikingly open part of Tsavo, where endless plains stretch all the way to the horizon. Following the rains, this vast wilderness transforms into an expanse of emerald. Once the dry season sets in, however, it becomes a blanket of beige and baked red earth. As seasonal water sources dry up, life becomes exponentially more challenging for the creatures who call this landscape home.
That was the genesis of the Voi waterhole. Given the ever-shrinking state of our natural world, every acre of existing habitat must be nurtured and cherished. While our Voi stockades have always had plenty of water for the orphans, we wanted to complement the greater landscape with additional resources. A more central waterhole around the back of Msinga Hill would create another gathering point in the bush for our orphans and their wild friends. It would also be a way to support creatures great and small as they grapple with our ever-changing world. Wild animals are not driving climate change, but they feel its effects most keenly.
For that reason, we created this particular waterhole about five years ago. We knew it would be a gift for our orphan herd, but of equal importance, a gift for the creatures who call the area home. It sits beneath a giant baobab tree. Its smooth, stout base provides an ideal scratching post, while its branches arch in a shady canopy. In this vast landscape, it is an area around which all life rotates.
Almost immediately, the wildlife began circling in. They come throughout the year, but especially during the dry season. You can almost sense their palpable relief at finding a new source of water in this vast landscape. There are towers of giraffes, dazzles of zebras, herds of buffalos, and of course, elephants aplenty.
Our dependent orphans have slotted into this scene in the most wonderful way. They coyly shadow wild elephants, mimicking their movements and syphoning up as much wisdom from them as they can. These daily interactions are incredibly important, as they go a long way in teaching our orphans the ways of the wild. The wild elephants, for their part, unreservedly accept our unique orphan herd. They have even come to understand the Keepers and the role they play.
If a visiting herd has a baby in tow, the orphans cannot contain their delight. While most of them are quite demure, Tamiyoi has no compunction about walking right up to mums and asking permission to play with their little ones. When she is granted the privilege, Tagwa and Sagala watch covetously from the sidelines — they are desperately envious, but lack the gumption to join in!
Elephant society is built on a hierarchy of respect, and these wild visitors command a certain level of gravitas. One orphan, however, is completely nonplussed by their presence. I am referring, of course, to Lemeki. She is the queen of her universe, regardless of who enters her orbit. Given her sheltered upbringing at our Kaluku Neonate Nursery, we thought she might be flustered to be in the presence of adult, wild elephants at Voi. True to form, that has not been the case!
The Keepers were reminded of this one hot afternoon, when a large herd approached the waterhole. They gathered to drink from the adjacent troughs, where Lemeki happened to be enjoying a private swim. While most youngsters would vacate the trough to make way for the thirsty herd, our little queen didn't pick up on these social cues.
Instead, Lemeki just amped up her antics for the benefit of her onlookers. The wild elephants, for their part, seemed bemused by the revelling young upstart. One had a young calf by her side, and Lemeki reached out her trunk and gave him a cheeky tap. Her mild-mannered sidekick, Thamana, watched everything unfold from the water’s edge, clearly wondering what on earth his friend was up to now.
When we created the new Voi waterhole, we knew it would bring about all manner of revelations. But its role was brought starkly into focus earlier this month. To tell this story properly, we must first go back in time. In 2017, a devastating drought swept across Kenya, killing hundreds of elephants and leaving a swathe of orphans in its wake. Tahri was one such victim, found on the brink of death in Tsavo East. Given that she was already two years old and rescued just a stone’s throw away from Voi, we decided to bypass the Nursery stage and raise her there.
For the following three years, Tahri thrived at Voi. She was a great favourite among the older girls, particularly Kenia and Ndii. They filled the maternal void in Tahri’s life, lavishing her with love and providing guidance in equal measure. Tahri was a very content little calf.
That is why the events of February 2021 came as quite a surprise. It began as a normal morning at the Voi waterhole, as the orphans mingled with a group of wild elephants we knew well. Suddenly, Tahri became enveloped in the herd and began to move off with them. Two females took up position on either side of her, further ensconcing her. Rorogoi, Arruba, Ndotto, Murit, Lasayen, and Araba were hot on their heels, and the Keepers joined the effort to retrieve her, but Tahri flatly refused to leave the females behind.
It is ultimately an orphan’s choice to leave our care, and Tahri made it abundantly clear that she was ready to take that step. The Keepers continued to search for her over the following days and weeks, in case she had been dropped from the herd. However, the elephants must have disappeared into the far reaches of Tsavo, for they were never sighted again.
Given how definitively and self-assuredly Tahri joined this wild herd, we wondered if they might be her long-lost family. Given the vast distances elephants roam, later-in-life reunions between orphans and their natal family are extremely unlikely. However, they are certainly not outside the realm of possibility — especially for an orphan like Tahri, who was rescued quite close to Voi.
In the end, however, that theory did not add up. The herd in question were frequent visitors at Voi. Their matriarch, a no-nonsense female with distinctive crossed tusks, had become a familiar face. If they were her family, why had they only chosen to scoop her up now?
February marked one year since Tahri had reclaimed her wild life. We had not seen so much as a hint of her in the intervening months. However, she was always on our minds. As the dry season gripped Tsavo at the end of last year, claiming the lives of many wild elephants and leaving many more orphaned, we couldn't help but worry. Unlike our dependent herd, Tahri didn't have the benefit of supplementary feeds during this challenging time.
And this brings me back to the present day. Again, it was another normal morning at the Voi waterhole. After drinking and wallowing to their hearts’ content, the orphans were just beginning to drift off towards the browsing fields. At the same time, a wild herd approached from below, steadily making their way towards the giant baobab tree.
While the herd stopped for a drink, one elephant looked up and spotted the orphans in the distance. She immediately broke ranks and came hurrying towards them. Initially, the Keepers were taken aback: Who was this bold visitor approaching with such confidence and enthusiasm? As soon as the elephant came into closer view, however, they couldn’t believe their eyes. This was no stranger, but a much-loved member of our herd. It was Tahri!
The Keepers looked down towards the waterhole, to see if the wild herd would react, but they watched Tahri rejoin the orphans without concern or complaint. It was as if they had prearranged this rendezvous for the sole purpose of depositing Tahri back with her human-elephant family. With that mission complete, they continued on their way. Given the wonderfully complex methods of elephant communication, we have no doubt that they will remain in contact with Tahri even as they traverse Tsavo. They have been regular visitors in the past, so we hope they return soon.
Meanwhile, the excitement of the other orphans was off the charts. Everyone clustered around Tahri and embraced her with their trunks. Lasayen celebrated her arrival with an impromptu talent show, striking all sorts of clever poses. Mudanda whisked her away for a browsing session, while Thamana edged in to introduce himself. Voi’s presiding matriarch, Mbegu, greeted Tahri with unbridled delight. This was in stark contrast to Tahri and Mbegu’s first meeting in 2018, when Mbegu graduated to Voi. Tahri was less than welcoming to the new arrival, who she viewed as competition. Mbegu dealt with her petty behaviour by sucking up cold water from the trough and pouring it on Tahri’s head! After this moment of discipline, she went out of her way to befriend Tahri, and the girls have become close over the years.
The Keepers noted that Tahri looked remarkably well. This is a triumph in and of itself, for she chose a challenging year to leave our care. 2021 marked the worst dry season to strike Tsavo since 2017. That drought nearly claimed Tahri's life. This time around, she held her own in a very unforgiving landscape. No doubt her wild friends helped in this respect, leading the way and teaching the young elephant how to navigate such difficult conditions.
But now, it seems that Tahri is eager to regroup back at Voi. She celebrated her homecoming with a big bottle of porridge oats, savouring every last drop of this special treat with trunk raised and eyes closed in contentment. From that moment onwards, Tahri never missed a beat. She seamlessly slotted back into the Voi routine, going from mud bath to browsing and then back to the stockades as if she had never left.
We will never know exactly what unfolded with Tahri. Was it actually her family who claimed her? Given subsequent events, that now seems improbable. More likely, she simply felt a connection with this herd. They, in turn, looked after and cherished Tahri as if she was one of their own. Because of their support, she survived an extremely challenging dry season. And then, in the wondrous ways of elephants, she must have communicated that it was time to come ‘home.’ They duly brought her back to the waterhole where they originally met, before continuing on their way.
The Voi waterhole will always be a place of miracles. Last year, it was where Tahri reclaimed her place in the wild. This year, it was the scene of her triumphant homecoming. In the fullness of time, once Tahri has grasped her wild future, perhaps she will stride up to the waterhole with her own babies in tow. But for now, as she relishes her time back home, the waterhole is a sanctuary and a comfort zone for our young traveller.