Our Miracle Elephant Mothers

Published on the 28th of November, 2019

There is no moment more joyous than when our wild-living orphans introduce us to their newborn babies.

To raise orphaned elephants is to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. (My mum very aptly called it a “cocktail of joy, tempered with a good dose of tears.”) There are long days and sleepless nights, tireless efforts to bring babies back from the brink and tears shed over those too far gone to be saved. Our investment in these little lives lasts a lifetime, long after they have grown up and transitioned from our care. We know each elephant as well as you know a beloved family member, because indeed that is what they are to us.

There is no moment more joyous than when our wild-living orphans introduce us to their newborn babies. It’s a poignant tribute from the elephants themselves, their way of saying thank you for offering them a second chance and giving them the opportunity to start their own families. So, you can imagine our joy when three very special girls — wild-living orphans who we raised from infancy — introduced us to their newborns on 17th November. This month, I would like to tell you more about their stories, and invite you to share in the joy that your support makes possible.

– Angela Sheldrick

Our miracle elephant mothers:

Tsavo is a paradise right now, blossoming under all the rain it has received, bursting with fresh greenery and glistening puddles. This is the time of year when the wild-living orphans who grew up at our Voi Reintegration Unit come back to roost, after travelling far and wide during the difficult dry season in search of adequate browse. We’ve been expecting their arrival for some time now, but nothing could have prepared us for the little jewels who trotted in on the morning of 17th November: Edie (20 years old) and Mweya (18 years old), two orphans who have been living wild for quite some time now, arrived at the Voi mud bath with two perfect, chubby little babies in tow.

But, this wasn’t all the day had in store for us! 100 kilometers north in Ithumba, conditions in the Park are quite different. The wet season is when our wild-living orphans disperse, eager to sample all the green delights Tsavo has to offer them. So, we were taken by surprise when that very same day, Wendi (17 years old) strolled up to the mud bath with her own little jewel toddling behind her.

It’s not every day that we get to meet not one, not two, but three babies born to our wild-living orphans. (You can read all about the joyous events of 17th November here.) We’ve named Edie’s baby, who is her third calf but her first son, Eco. Wendi’s daughter, her second, is named Wema, which means “goodness” in Swahili. Of the trio, only Mweya is a first-time mum, and we are calling her daughter Mwitu, which means “wild” in Swahili.

“Wild” is a most fitting epithet, because indeed these calves are wild through and through. In fact, seeing these little families blossom, it’s easy to forget that each of their mothers was robbed of the opportunity to grow up alongside her own family. Wendi still had her umbilical cord when she was found abandoned in the Imenti Forest. Mweya wasn’t much older when she wandered into a fishing village. Little Edie fell down a well when she was just four months old, and her family was forced to leave her after their repeated attempts to retrieve her proved futile.

Many of the orphans who come into our care are rescued under the most tragic circumstances. We've seen them through their darkest days, stood (and indeed, slept!) by their sides at the Nursery, and helped them transition from our Reintegration Units to a wild life. When these elephants have their own offspring, it’s the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another; it cements their status as wild elephants and truly signifies that things have come full circle.

This is the aspect of our work that amazes me the most. Orphans like Edie, Mweya, and Wendi never grew up with an elephant family. They were raised by the human hand, yet they are able to navigate the role of a parent so capably and confidently. Of course, they don’t do it alone: Our herds of wild-living orphans have banded together as a true family, and the nannies are often more diligent in their care-taking than the calves’ own mothers. In the case of Wendi, who has been a rather wayward mother, this is certainly true. She relied heavily on her girlfriends to raise Wiva, though it looks like she is taking a more hands-on approach with Wema!

It’s remarkable to see how elephants of all ages celebrate a newborn baby. An afternoon in January 2012 stands out in my memory as a testament to this, when Yatta introduced us to her two-day old calf, Yetu. The Ithumba waterhole was full to the brim at the time — much as it is right now, in fact — and the elephants clearly decided that the best way to celebrate this new little life was by escorting her for a swim. The scene that unfolded was a scene of pure joy: mud flew, trunks waved, water sparkled, trumpets blared, and amidst it all, tiny little Yetu swam like a fish!

These are the scenes that truly make raising an orphaned elephant a “cocktail of joy” as my mother so aptly called it — and we feel immensely privileged to be privy to these moments. Despite the fact that they now have a family to call their very own, our orphans never forget us, their human family. While they may be absent for long periods of time, when they return it as if they never left; they’re not protective of their babies, but instead have a desire to share them with their Keepers. Indeed, Mweya and Edie forged days ahead of the rest of their herd to arrive at our Voi Reintegration Unit early, so eager were they to introduce their new babies to the Keepers there. Wendi has remained close to Ithumba since giving birth to Wema, knowing that it is a place of safety and support.

Eco, Mwitu, and Wema are the first in a new wave of wild-born babies we’re expecting. There are a number of wild-living females entering childbearing age. They will soon become first-time mums, and alongside the second and third-time mums, we will soon be blessed with a bounty of babies. It is this that shows the enormity of our Orphans’ Project, manifesting itself through the next generation of elephants. In the meantime, we watch these three little miracles gambol about, set against the backdrop of Tsavo in all its green splendor, with smiles on our faces. I couldn’t imagine a better way to herald in this holiday season.

You, our supporters, make these stories possible. Without you, there would be no Wema or Mwitu or Eco — for it is you who help us give vulnerable orphans like Wendi and Mweya and Edie a future, who make it possible for them to grow up and start their own families in the wild. We have many more orphans currently following in their footsteps. They may be young and vulnerable right now, but one day, they too will be ready to reclaim their birthright. If you are able to support these dependent orphans through their darkest days, there are so many ways to make an impact this holiday season: you could gift the adoption of an orphan, purchase one of my original watercolors in support of the Orphans’ Project, or set up a recurring monthly donation.

More than anything, I want to thank you most sincerely for the vital role you play in our success. I hope you share in the joy of these newborn miracles, and have an equally joyous holiday season filled with much love and laughter.

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 email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with our staff, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.

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