The Saga of a Very Special Warthog

Published on the 26th of May, 2022

My childhood in Tsavo was peppered with a colourful cast of characters. Of course, we had elephants and rhinos and buffalos. But the figures who feature most prominently in my memories are the merry band of misfits. There was Baby the eland, who was as good a friend as any human, Bunty, an impala who was fiercely protective of my mum, and Jimmy, an affable kudu, among countless others.

Raising my own family in Nairobi National Park, we were surrounded by a similarly eclectic crew. Although elephants played a starring role, my boys grew up alongside their own extended family, from Puck the serval cat to Geri the Thomson’s gazelle to Shabby the ibis. Now at our Kaluku Field Headquarters, a small orphan herd holds their own alongside a menagerie of elephants, rhino, and giraffe.

Among this group, one little creature reigns supreme. This month, I would like to share her story.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Saga of a Very Special Warthog

In a world surrounded by giants, it might seem incongruous that the smallest creatures often create the biggest impression. Indeed, elephants loom large in every way, with their enormous stature and outsized personalities. But size is not the measure of a life. Those creatures who are small in stature have equally colourful, full-bodied characters.

No one is a greater reminder of this than Scooter. During a routine patrol in October 2021, our Canine Unit found a tiny piglet cowering in the bush. She was gaunt, dehydrated, and had clearly been on her own for some time. Aya, our tracker dog, only showed a fleeting interest in the warthog before putting her nose back to the ground, off to pursue a more fruitful scent. However, the team knew that such a young orphan would not last long on her own. The piglet was scooped up and, nestled in the crook of a ranger’s arm (for she was no larger than a courgette at the time), she made her way to our Kaluku Field Headquarters.

Even as a tiny piglet, Scooter ran the show (here with Mkubwa the buffalo)

At first, Scooter seemed like a low-key little character — but this illusion lasted all of a week! Once reality set in that she was safe among a new family, the timid facade dissolved and a brassy, bold warthog emerged. Simply put, Scooter was unleashed. Her flat snout held aloft, she took to patrolling the Kaluku compound with a chorus of croaky snorts. She developed a crush on Mkubwa the buffalo and shadowed him everywhere, totally unperturbed by the fact that she was quite literally the size of his ear.

Kwale the hartebeest has been Scooter's best friend since day one

Life became exponentially more exciting for Scooter when a minion entered her orbit. This came in the form of Kwale, an orphaned hartebeest who was rescued just a few days after her. He and Scooter became fast friends. It was a match made in heaven, for as demanding and bossy as Scooter is, Kwale is just happy to go with the flow. She assumed the role of ringleader; he, her eager sidekick.

Scooter and her long-suffering roommates, Kwale and Lali

Scooter’s dominion even continued into the nighttime hours. Warthogs are burrowers by nature, so we built a little box to recreate the sleeping experience she would have had in the wild. This mini bedroom was placed inside the stable that Kwale and Lali, a young orphaned kudu, shared. This allowed all three to be looked after by their fourth roommate, a dedicated Keeper who provided care throughout the night. The issue was that, with Scooter on the scene, precious little sleeping was possible!

Before retiring to her makeshift burrow, Scooter instituted an evening social hour with her roommates. Participation was mandatory, no matter how tired anyone else was. She would snuggle up between Kwale and Lali, and if either of them showed signs of drifting off to sleep, she gave them a rude awakening through a series of perfunctory nips. Only when she deemed it bedtime would she saunter into her burrow, leaving her long-suffering roommates in peace at last.

Scooter has such a special bond with Peter, who has raised her since infancy

While every Keeper holds a place in Scooter’s heart, she has always been particularly fond of Peter. Peter started working at the Trust as a gardener, but we soon realised that he had a special way with animals. The orphans flocked to him as if by gravitational pull, and it became commonplace to find him tending to the plants with an assortment of wildlife following in his wake. Recognising we had a rare talent in our midst, we offered Peter the role of Keeper for our eclectic Kaluku orphans.

No activity escapes Scooter's supervision

Once Scooter was big enough, she started following Peter to the midday mud bath. At first, she curiously followed the wheelbarrow as he delivered milk to Apollo the rhino and the orphaned elephants. Within a week, she was confidently captaining the milk parade, striding ahead of Peter with her tail held aloft. The other orphans started following suit, and soon, she was leading Kwale, Susu the eland, Mkubwa, and any other creatures who happened to be at a loose end that day.

The warthog always holds court at the mud bath

To no one’s surprise, Scooter quickly turned the mud bath into her own little fiefdom. Far from being daunted by a hulking rhino, she seemed to view Apollo as just another one of her subjects. If he was wallowing in a patch that looked particularly enticing, she would simply insert herself into the mud next to him. She was similarly unruffled by the elephants. As they enjoyed their milk or took a dip in the pool, she fussed around the area, making as much noise as possible and generally running the show. Mayan and Vaarti, who are fond of a playful chase, often set their sights on the little warthog. Confronted by two elephants charging her way, ears flared and trunks swinging, Scooter would merely trot in the other direction with an irritated snort.

Scooter is unflappable, even in the face of a creature several times her size

And so things continued until March. Warthogs are inherently a bit — forgive the obvious pun — boorish by nature, but Scooter suddenly morphed into a fully-fledged menace. She seemed to have it out for the antelope and started a relentless campaign of harassment, nipping at their heels and chasing them around the compound. We tried our best to encourage better behaviour, but she was incorrigible. Finally, after exhausting all avenues on-site, we wondered if Scooter might be ready for a graduation of her own.

When Scooter started acting out, we wondered if a change of scene was what she needed

Later that month, we moved Scooter to Kenze, neighbouring our Umani Springs Reintegration Unit in the Kibwezi Forest. It serves as the base of our Kenze Anti-Poaching Team and is where we raise many non-elephant orphans who hail from the Chyulu ecosystem. Given that Kenze is still a hive of activity, but with far less four-legged friends to hassle, we hoped it would be a perfect home for our bossy little pig.

Initially, Kenze seemed to agree with Scooter. She got the lay of the land and recruited all the anti-poaching rangers as her new minions. Her disruptive bedtime habits continued unabated: After a long day on patrol, a ranger would eagerly settle into his tent to sleep, only to find the blunt end of a warthog snout pushing its way inside! Scooter was also becoming acquainted with all the area's resident wildlife, particularly the bushback. She loved her new Keeper, Alex, who accompanied her day and night. We recruited Alex from the Umani Springs casual road crew. Like Peter, we recognised that he had an innate way with animals.

We soon realised that Scooter's new home didn't suit her

We received daily reports about Scooter's progress at Kenze, but once she had settled in, I wanted to see her for myself. About a month after Scooter's move, I went to visit her in Kenze. Ever the hostess, she came trotting over to greet me and led me through her new home. To the casual observer, she looked perfectly happy in Kenze. However, having been part of her life from the very beginning, I could tell at once that Scooter was not herself. Gone was her spark, replaced by a subdued version of the warthog I knew and loved.

Clearly, Scooter needed to go home. We organised an extraction mission for the very next morning. A small team, including Peter, headed to Kenze around lunchtime. Everyone thought this would be a simple and straightforward mission — after all, compared to elephants, moving an adolescent warthog should be a breeze. But how wrong we were!

It was time to bring our girl back to Kaluku

Scooter recognised Peter immediately. However, she is a smart girl, her delight at being reunited was tempered by the suspicion that something was afoot. For several exhausting hours, she gave everyone the runaround. She could not have possibly known what their mission was, but she made it her mission to thwart them at every turn. At last, just when everyone’s stamina had reached a breaking point, they successfully bundled up the little warthog and ferried their precious cargo over to Kaluku.

Her Keeper, Alex, meanwhile, was was whisked up to our Nairobi Nursery to become an elephant Keeper. We all called this job opportunity 'Scooter's parting gift' — given how well Alex handled a wily warthog, we knew he would thrive among elephants!

Scooter slotted right back into the Kaluku routine — quite literally!

We waited with bated breath as Scooter’s little hooves set down on their home turf. Would her zest come billowing back, or would she return to Kaluku a changed warthog?

Scooter and Kwale picked up right where they left off

That worry lasted all of two minutes. The old Scooter returned with gusto. After a perfunctory inspection of the compound, she was satisfied that not much had changed in her absence. It was late afternoon by the time she finally arrived, so we decided to wait until the next morning to reunite her with her old friends. Peter tucked her into her bedroom and she enjoyed a long, deep sleep. (We prudently decided to give Scooter her own stable this time around, as her former roommates had really been enjoying their restful nights!)

Scooter reigns over mud bath once again, just like the old days

At 11 o’clock the next morning, I headed down to the stable compound to see how Scooter was settling in. Given that it was her first day back, I assumed she might be hanging out close to home and getting back into the swing of things. I should have known better: Without missing a beat, Scooter had led the parade over to the mud bath, just like old times!

The scene that greeted me at the mud bath was all the confirmation I needed that moving Scooter ‘home’ was the right decision. She was happily presiding over her merry band of misfits as if she had never left. Kwale was her shadow, visibly delighted to be back with his bossy friend. With her characteristic bravado, Scooter encroached on Apollo’s mud bath and grunted peevishly at any elephant who got too close. When Peter headed back to the compound with the milk wheelbarrow, Scooter led the charge, tail aloft like a ship’s mast. At last, our captain had returned.

With our little warthog back in the fold, all is as it should be

We refer to Scooter’s sojourn at Kenze as her term at finishing school. Her manners have improved enormously, although we still see glimmers of her old behaviour. While she is occasionally up to her old tricks with the antelope, she usually finds more productive ways to keep herself busy. When Scooter is not supervising the milk mixing or presiding over mud bath, she is inspecting the orphans’ bedrooms or begging the Keepers for bits of chapati. She has plenty of opportunities to meet wild warthogs in the area. In time, I feel sure she will join their ranks.

As Scooter reminds us, every creature, no matter how big or how small, should be cherished. Scooter can be a handful, but she is our handful — and we would not have it any other way.

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 monthly email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with members of our team, please subscribe below.
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