How Our Neonate Nursery Came to Be

Published on the 27th of May, 2021

Working with wildlife, uncertainty is the only certainty. While we are unflappable during elephant rescues, two orphans changed everything for us: Lemeki and Kindani.

By now, you are probably familiar with Kindani, Kinyei, and Bondeni. This precious trio were orphaned at impossibly young ages and spent their most vulnerable period at our Kaluku Neonate Nursery, before graduating to Nairobi late last year. Last month, we introduced Lemeki to our adoption program. She is another elephant who beat all the odds, rescued from raging floodwaters when she was just days old. She continues to rule the roost at Kaluku, where she presides over a small herd of fellow elephant orphans.

As you become acquainted with these characters, I wanted to share more about the place they call home. This month, discover how our Kaluku Neonate Nursery came to be.

– Angela Sheldrick

How Our Neonate Nursery Came to Be

Our Kaluku Neonate Nursery feels like my mother's parting gift: Its foundation was totally unexpected yet perfectly serendipitous, and with one ending came new beginnings. Just as Daphne's brave battle with cancer was coming to an end in 2018, two new orphans entered the fold. Both were females, startlingly young elephants who had overcome incredible odds to even survive the circumstances that left them orphaned. It was not lost on any of us that, had it not been for Daphne’s pioneering work, these girls would have never had a chance.

Infant elephants are extremely fragile, and raising a neonate orphan is a formidable task

However, the odds were still stacked against them. Orphans this young always make one's heart sink. Raising any infant elephant is a formidable task, but for a true neonate to survive is a feat indeed. As my mother once said, "Baby elephants are extremely fragile. They can be fine one day and dead the next. That is where experience comes in—just being able to detect any such signs early enough to do something about it." This decades of experience is what led us to Kaluku. At the time, much of Kenya was experiencing daily storms . Rivers were bursting their banks and cars were getting washed off the roads in Nairobi National Park. Our Nairobi Nursery was right in the thick of it, receiving as much as five inches of rain in a single deluge day after day. As a result, the Nursery was inescapably sodden, cold and overcast, with rain soaking every corner leaving the compound saturated — hardly an oasis in which to bring newly rescued neonate elephants.

From the outset — even as a newborn rescue — Lemeki was larger than life

Lemeki was the first to arrive — and what an entrance she made. On the 20th March 2018, rangers spotted a tiny elephant floundering in the Mara River. While she seemed remarkably unperturbed by her watery odyssey (we would later come to realise that nonchalance is a Lemeki signature!), we recognised that appearances could be deceiving: This calf was no more than a week old and, given her age and prolonged time in the river, dangerously susceptible to pneumonia. Bringing her to Nairobi simply wasn't an option.

And so, we changed course and flew Lemeki directly to our Kaluku Field HQ in Tsavo, which was warm and — crucially — dry. We never expected to raise elephants at Kaluku. It is the head of all our field work, the nexus of our anti-poaching, mobile veterinary, aerial surveillance, habitat preservation, and community outreach operations. Over the years, we had raised an assortment of orphaned wildlife there, but never elephants. There had simply never been a need to divert from Nairobi. However, the floods of 2018 changed all that.

When Lemeki first arrived at Kaluku, we had to turn an office into a makeshift bedroom while we built proper elephant stables

When we woke up that morning, we never could have imagined that a neonate elephant would be arriving at Kaluku's doorstep. As a result, little Lemeki got a hastily cobbled together welcoming committee — not that she seemed to notice. She emerged from the rescue helicopter larger than life, owning her new environment from the outset and thriving in the warm climate of Tsavo. She immediately reigned over Kaluku as if was her own little kingdom, brightening everyone's days with her drama and demands.

While we have raised all manner of orphans at Kaluku, Lemeki was our first elephant to enter the fold

While we set about building elephant stables at Kaluku, Lemeki took up residence in a ground-floor office that had been converted into a makeshift bedroom. No sooner had we gotten to work on her accommodations, however, than another neonate came into our care. On the afternoon of 2nd April 2018, Kindani was spotted alone in Meru National Park. Just days old — too young to know fear, but acutely aware she needed a family — she eagerly followed the KWS rangers who found her. She too had a slim chance of survival at Nairobi, but given the late hour, we couldn't transport her all the way down to Tsavo that night. So, while our Kaluku team prepared for yet another arrival, Kindani enjoyed a brief stopover in Nairobi, where she was swaddled in extra thick blankets overnight for extra warmth to ward off the chill.

Kindani's arrival was equally unexpected

Given Kindani and Lemeki's respective precarious states, we knew how risky it would be to put them in close quarters. Baby elephants can carry all manner of illnesses, so immediate close contact could inadvertently put one at risk from the other. While Lemeki took up residence closer to the field operations, we put Kindani in a small stable block close to my family's house. Things got more complicated when the Athi River, which runs past Kaluku, burst its banks one night, engulfing Kindani’s stable in water. Thinking fast as waters began to rise, her Keepers took her up to our home, which sits on much higher ground overlooking the river. For a full nine hours, the house remained a marooned island and fully inaccessible. Kindani and her Keepers spent the night in Daphne’s bedroom, neither sleeping very well given the enormity of events. The floods experienced that night were the most dramatic recorded on this river in 100 years. Numerous properties along the river were flooded and lost to the raging waters that night, our Galdessa Lodge being one of them.

For Kindani, the real challenges began after she was rescued

I still marvel at how everything came together in this moment. I really believe my mother was watching over us. You see, Daphne passed away on the 12th April. She bore witness to the very beginnings of our Kaluku Neonate Nursery and was absolutely delighted by this solution to raise our most vulnerable orphans. The fact that, just days after her death, a baby elephant ended up slumbering in her bedroom — well, it felt like a sign from above.

Shortly after her rescue, Kindani was joined by fellow neonates Bondeni and Kinyei

While Daphne would have happily donated her bedroom to Kindani, it was hardly a long-term solution. As soon as the weather allowed, we rebuilt and expanded her stable block. It was a good thing, too, for in the following months, several more neonate orphans would come into our care. Kindani's herd expanded to include Kinyei, who was found skirting around a pride of lions, and Bondeni, who wandered into a village bordering the Chyulu Hills. Lemeki, meanwhile, reigned over the whole other side of Kaluku. Her little herd grew, too, and I look forward to introducing her friends in due course.

Lemeki has her own little herd, who she lords over in typical Lemeki fashion

Raising infant orphans requires a completely customised approach; there is no "one-size-fits-all" method when it comes to baby elephants. This is especially true when it comes to neonates. Because new rescues continued to filter in, each more vulnerable than the next, we kept Lemeki and Kindani's groups separate, so as to not put newcomers at risk. This also allowed us to provide extremely tailored care to each group. For instance, after two years at Kaluku, we recognised that Kindani, Kinyei, and Bondeni would benefit from the influence of older orphans. With this in mind, we moved them to our Nairobi Nursery in September 2020. I am happy to report they are thriving there — Kindani and Kinyei, who are both quite introverted, are making new friends at their own pace, while our little extrovert Bondeni has taken the entire Nursery by storm.

This corner of Tsavo is a paradise for baby elephants, providing them the safety and stimulation they need to thrive

Lemeki, on the other hand, prefers to be the queen of her own kingdom. She is a bit more advanced than the other members of her herd, three young bulls who are unabashedly devoted to her. We knew that if we were to move her to Nairobi, it would send her little charges into disarray. Aside from that, Lemeki didn't seem to be wanting for socialisation in the same way that Kindani and Kinyei were. In fact, she is the definition of a mini matriarch. She lords over man and beast at Kaluku — even the resident guinea fowl trail loyally after her! For that reason, Lemeki will continue her reign at Kaluku until her friends are ready to join her at one of our Reintegration Units in Tsavo, where they will all take the next step in their journey back to the wild.

While its formation was entirely unplanned, our Kaluku Neonate Nursery became a fount of hope in the wake of Daphne's death

While it was borne from urgent circumstances, this corner of the Tsavo Conservation Area is a perfect place to raise neonate elephants. These babies spend their days in absolute bliss, sliding down sandy lugga banks, and splashing in the still waters of a now more subdued Athi River. Their bellies are plump from the bounty of green vegetation at their disposal, while their minds are bright from the constant stimulation that comes from exploring nature's playground.

Our Kaluku Neonate Nursery came to be at a very difficult time for me, and for the Trust as a whole. Daphne was a rock to all of us. Her passing left us adrift and absolutely heartbroken. Kaluku was the balm that put it back together. Creating a solution amidst the most turbulent and challenging circumstances, saving these tiny elephant lives and giving them the future they deserved, was the most fitting way to honour my mother's legacy.

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.

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