The Princess of Umani

Published on the 28th of March, 2024

The world can be a disheartening place. But sometimes, something happens to remind us that our world is ultimately an extraordinary place — a place full of hope and possibilities. Murera’s baby is one of those reminders.

Fresh off Mwana’s first birthday celebrations, I would like to devote this month’s Field Notes to our enchanting, inspiring, larger-than-life miracle baby.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Princess of Umani Springs

She toddles through the leafy forest with a supernal confidence, her ears perpetually outstretched to form one flapping heart. Nothing escapes her — she is always observing, learning, and teaching in turn. We are biased, but we know that she is exceptionally advanced for her age, in terms of both size and development. She is the smallest elephant at Umani Springs, but she holds the entire herd in her thrall.

I am, of course, describing Mwana. But before we dive in, let’s briefly go back in time.

Every elephant that comes into the world is a hard-earned miracle. Elephants have the longest pregnancy period of any mammals. Mothers carry their babies for a staggering 22 months, all while navigating the daily struggles that mark any wild animal.

For Murera, those struggles have always been heightened. She stands out as our most challenging orphan story to date. In 2012, at the height of Africa’s ivory poaching epidemic, we were called to rescue an elephant calf who had stepped on a poisoned spike trap. (This is a particularly cruel means of poaching, in which poachers set a poison-coated, spiked plank on a well-trafficked elephant trail. Their victims suffer a torturously drawn-out demise, after which poachers track them down and steal their tusks.)

Little Murera was too young to have tusks, but she still fell victim to a poacher’s indiscriminate cruelty. The spikes left her riddled with deep, suppurating wounds. Her injuries had caused her to take a serious fall, leaving her with a severely damaged hind end. When Murera arrived at the Nursery, everyone fell silent: Her ruined body was contorted in pain, her crinkled forehead betraying the agony within. She was terrified, knowing all too well that humans were to blame for her ordeal.

Murera’s story very nearly ended there. The day after she was rescued, she collapsed and had to be put on life support. Those who examined her came to the heartbreaking, but understandable, conclusion that it would be kindest to end her suffering. Vets do not recommend euthanasia lightly, but given the extent of Murera’s injuries, it was difficult to envision a path forward.

I will always remember Daphne’s rebuttal: ‘This elephant has a lifespan of upwards of 60 years. Even if healing Murera takes a two-year struggle, it is important we try, as she so wants to live.’ While she recognised and respected that sometimes the most heartbreaking course of action is the kindest one, she saw that Murera had a will to live.

The months and years that followed were painstaking for all, but none of us — Murera included — were willing to give up. She went on to defy the odds, becoming the founding matriarch of our Umani Springs Reintegration Unit. I have reflected on Murera’s journey in a previous Field Notes, which I invite you to revisit here. (If you haven’t yet read it, please do: It will give you so much insight into Murera’s incredible journey as a matriarch.)

Fast forward to 2021. Our Umani family suffered a heartbreaking loss when Luggard, a calf whose injuries mirrored Murera’s, passed away after his body essentially failed him. Murera was inconsolable. She loved Luggard like a son, no doubt sensing a kinship given their similar histories. In the wake of his death, she disappeared for several nights. This was highly out of character; given her condition, Murera never strayed far from the dependent herd and always returned to her stockade at night. Everyone assumed that she wished to mourn in private, away from the place that was saturated with memories of Luggard.

After her mourning period, Murera returned to the Umani herd and life resumed as usual. But as the months wore on, it became clear that her ‘wild safari’ had ulterior motives. Her belly became increasingly round and her mood changed. To our utter astonishment, we realised that Murera was pregnant. We firmly believe that, following Luggard’s death, she went out with the express intention of conceiving a new child in whom she could pour her love.

We approached Murera’s due date with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. While she has healed remarkably over the years, her hips will always be compromised. We wondered how she would handle the birth of a 250-pound calf. But we needn’t have worried: On 12th March 2023, without drama or preamble, Murera peeled away from the dependent herd and delivered a beautiful baby girl.

We chose the name ‘Mwana', which means ‘child’ in Swahili, for Murera’s daughter. It turned out to be a more fitting name than we could possibly imagine — for Mwana really is a child of Umani.

Mwana is growing up as an elephant of two worlds. She is the result of a union with a fully wild bull, and she and Murera are free to lead their lives as they choose. Given her compromised condition, however, Murera has prudently decided to remain rooted to her Umani Keepers and dependent orphans, knowing they are a source of safety and support. She and Mwana lead the orphans through the Kibwezi Forest and Chyulu Hills by day and return to their shared stockade by night.

This arrangement might change as the years pass — only time will tell. But for now, we have the privilege of witnessing the development of a wild elephant baby from the very beginning.

From the moment she was born, all focus shifted to Mwana. It was as if the lens of everyone’s daily lives immediately homed in on the tiny baby in their midst. Enkesha and Kiasa became chief nannies, while ex-orphans Quanza, Lima Lima, Sonje, and Zongoloni claimed every moment possible with Mwana. As is to be expected, there was an adjustment period in which Murera had to make it very clear that she — and only she — was Mwana’s mother. (Predictably, Lima Lima and Zongoloni were a bit overzealous and in their affections!)

Kapei was the only one who viewed Mwana as an undesirable addition. She unceremoniously dethroned him as the baby of the herd, leaving him severely disgruntled. Kapei vented his resentment through surreptitious kicks and shoves aimed at the little girl, although her ever-vigilant nannies were quick to put him in line. Sometimes, tough love is the most necessary kind of love. Mwana’s birth was a growth moment for Kapei, forcing the spoiled young bull to become more independent and sensible. He and Mwana have since settled into a comfortable siblingship, and we often see them playing together and lolling in the mud bath side by side. (Of course, always under the watchful eyes of their nannies, who make sure Kapei doesn’t get up to any mischief!)

But one orphan has been completely transformed through Mwana. Little Amali was rescued five months before Murera gave birth. Unlike her age-mate Kapei, she is quiet and undemanding, and was largely overlooked by the older girls. As a result, she struggled to find her place among the Umani herd. Mwashoti and Murera always looked after her, but she largely kept to herself.

Mwana has been the making of Amali. She has blossomed into a capable mini nanny, earning a trusted place by Murera’s side. The little wallflower we rescued now assuredly strides through the forest, well-aware that she holds a pivotal role as Mwana’s honorary big sister. With this newfound purpose, other layers to Amali’s character have revealed themselves. We believe she might be a Lima Lima-in-the-making; she is immensely loyal and has an unusual ability to scout out danger. These qualities would have eventually shone through of their own accord, but Mwana has unveiled them in an incredible way.

Mwana has even been training the older Umani girls for motherhood. She regularly faux suckles from Lima Lima, Sonje, and Zongoloni — all of whom we believe are pregnant, but are not yet producing milk. Curiously, she doesn’t suckle from Enkesha, Kiasa, or Amali, who are still a long way off from motherhood.

We believe that may be more than idle suckling. Nursing was the one stumbling block for Murera. After giving birth to Mwana, she curiously refused to let her daughter breastfeed. To ensure that Mwana received the nutrients a newborn requires, two Keepers began hand-milking Murera, then bottle feeding her baby. In a staggering demonstration of trust, Murera fully cooperated. Day and night, Keepers Sora and Evans remained by Murera’s side, feeding Mwana on demand. After eleven days and eleven nights of this painstaking process, something finally clicked with Murera and she has seamlessly breastfed Mwana ever since. Perhaps Mwana is hoping that her future ‘cousins’ are spared a similar experience, hence the tutorials with her big nannies.

Despite her unique circumstances — or perhaps, because of them — Murera is excelling as a mother. She approaches motherhood much as she approaches her matriarchy, leading with a quiet confidence that commands respect. She is patient and kind and loving, but she has little tolerance for nonsense. If her daughter oversteps the mark, Murera is quick to put her back in line. Being raised by a nurturer-slash-disciplinarian will serve Mwana well in elephant society.

Murera is stoic by nature, but she loves deeply. Mwana reignited in her a spark that was lost after Luggard’s death. She is intensely protective of her daughter and moulds every day around her welfare. It is humbling to witness how Murera leans on her human-elephant support system, appreciating and accepting their help.

The Umani Keepers are perhaps the most besotted with Mwana. They behave like proud grandfathers around her, fussing and doting and marvelling — as they should! Each of them played a pivotal role in Murera’s upbringing. It is because of their conscientious, devoted care that she is able to now pass it on and raise her daughter with the same love and attention.

The Keepers have taken a backseat role in Mwana’s upbringing, allowing Murera and the other elephants to lead the way. Thanks to their considered approach, Mwana has come to treat them as peripheral members of her family. She trusts the Keepers and sees them as part of her herd, but she does not share the same bond with them as an orphan raised by their hand. Of course, this is as it should be.

For all its joys, the past year was a difficult one for our Umani family. In July, we lost Patrick, a universally adored and respected Umani Keeper, under the most shocking and tragic circumstances. Mwana was the balm that helped heal everyone’s broken hearts. Through utter and naive joie de vivre, she helped us grapple with an unimaginable loss. Every day, her bright little button eyes and enchanting antics helped the team find a path forward.

With health and luck on their side, an elephant can live well into their sixties or even seventies. All well, Mwana could witness the dawn of a new century. But right now, her future is one long, as-yet-unravelled tapestry. An elephant’s life is never without its tribulations, but this particular calf has been born into a blessed existence.

To think — Mwana would not exist if we had given up 12 years ago, when a seemingly hopeless orphan came into our midst. Murera reminds us that even the smallest sliver of hope is worth pursuing. The stakes are higher than a feel-good outcome. It means the difference between an elephant dynasty or a closed door. Little Mwana, our Princess of Umani, is a living, breathing testament to that fact.

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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