Meet Our Eclectic Family

Published on the 25th of November, 2021

Kaluku is the epicentre of all our field operations, the place where our anti-poaching, mobile veterinary, aerial surveillance, habitat preservation, and community outreach projects converge. It is a hive of activity and a bastion of conservation, a 5,000-acre sanctuary bordering Tsavo and buffered by the Athi and Mtito Rivers.

Given its location on the doorstep of Kenya’s largest National Park, Kaluku is also the perfect place for all manner of orphaned wildlife to grow up and reclaim their place in the wild. In recent years, it has become a place of healing for our youngest, most vulnerable orphaned elephants. (The origin story of our Kaluku Neonate Nursery was the focus of an earlier Field Notes, which you can read here.) However, in this Field Notes, I wanted to focus on the other Kaluku orphans in our care. These creatures are not available for adoption, because their reintegration journey unfolds at a much faster pace than their elephant and rhino counterparts — but their stories are no less remarkable.

This has been a period like no other for the Trust. Poor rains earlier this year drove a very long dry season, and without substantial rainfall to sustain them, wildlife have reached a crisis point. We are quite literally bursting at the seams with new rescues. Please remember us this holiday season, as we grapple with an influx of orphans to care for. If you are in a position to support our work, consider the gift of an adoption. It is truly a gift that keeps on giving: Not only does your recipient receive monthly updates on their orphan, but adoptions directly fund our life-saving work here in Kenya.

Wherever you are in the world, I wish you a very happy holiday season, from our herd to yours.

– Angela Sheldrick

Our Eclectic Family

Every day has a dramatic debut at Kaluku, as the sun makes its way above the Athi River and saturates the sky with an orange blush. This is the cue for our resident flock of guinea fowl to rise with a chorus of throaty calls, adding to the fanfare of dawn and waking everyone else in the process!

We call these guinea fowl “Lemeki’s flock.” Lemeki is the undisputed queen of Kaluku, the first orphaned elephant we raised there and an absolute character. Rescued from a raging river when she was just a few days old, she blazed into our world larger than life. Her arrival coincided with the hatching of these vulturine guinea fowl. One of our pilots had put a great deal of effort into nurturing them, hoping they would roost around his home, but Lemeki quickly claimed them as her own. Every day, she would collect her feathered friends from his house to hang out in the nearby Mtito Lugga. Improbably, the chicks were equally smitten with her. When Lemeki’s new stable was built within the Kaluku headquarters, the guinea fowl relocated to be with her. Over the years, Lemeki’s flock has expanded considerably, but they still roost on the roof of her stable compound.

Among all the orphans who call Kaluku home, Lemeki (left) is the undisputed queen

Just as Lemeki’s flock has expanded over the years, so has our orphan herd. One neonate elephant turned into many, from the ever-patient Thamana to spunky little Rokka. Kaluku is reserved for our youngest, most vulnerable orphans. Many of these elephants come to us fresh out of the womb, the victims of the most incredible circumstances. The Kaluku environment seems to have a miraculous effect on them, and we have been delighted with the success of our neonates here. Many of our most experienced Keepers are at the helm, nurturing this toddling group of tiny elephants and helping them through the most fraught period of their lives.

Rokka is a spirited young elephant with a remarkable rescue story

Each orphan comes to us with their own story, but we often see patterns in rescues. Last year, it was bushfires: Over the course of 2021, we fought more than 80 blazes across the Tsavo ecosystem. During these firefighting efforts, many lives were also saved. While larger animals are generally able to outrun the flames, the youngest and smallest creatures don’t stand a chance, so our teams always keep an eye out for babies who are left behind. Such was the case with Rukinga the oryx, Susu the eland, and Bristle the ostrich. They made up our junior group last year, but now they are the seniors at Kaluku.

Susu the eland is one of the orphans saved from last year's spate of bushfires

This year, the prolonged dry season has been the culprit behind most of our rescues. It is a challenging time for wildlife, but especially elephants. While our Nursery is almost bursting at the seams with newly rescued orphans, the most fragile elephants have been brought to Kaluku. It is too soon to share these enchanting creatures' stories, but know that our Keepers have really been put to the test in recent weeks.

We have rescued an influx of orphaned elephants in recent weeks, and the most vulnerable come to Kaluku

Our non-elephant herd at Kaluku also continues to grow. Scooter, an orphaned warthog, is one of our most recent arrivals. During a routine patrol, our Canine Unit found the tiny piglet cowering alone in the bush, weak and emaciated. They may be vastly different species, but Scooter and Lemeki are cut from the same cloth: What Scooter lacks in size, she makes up for in personality — and then some! She is a big chatterbox, so you often hear her snorts and grunts before you see her.

Scooter (centre) bunks with her long-suffering roommates, Kwale and Lali

Scooter shares a bedtime stable with Lali the kudu and Kwale the hartebeest, all of whom were rescued around the same time. Lali is quiet but inquisitive. She silently inserts herself into the heart of the action, observing the world unfold through her wide, brown eyes. Kwale is a sleepy fellow, although occasionally the spirit moves him and he zooms around Kaluku at dizzying speeds. Munyu the kudu is the enigma of the group: She has always preferred to do her own thing, and sometimes just appears for a bottle of milk before slipping back into the bush for the day. Unlike Lali and Kwale, she has no time for Scooter’s antics.

"Lemeki's flock" of guinea fowl act as our morning alarm clock at Kaluku

Taking cues from Lemeki's flock of guinea fowl outside, all the Kaluku orphans wake up in tune with the rising sun. Each one begins their morning with a bottle of specialist milk, which is formulated to their age and species. From there, the different orphan groups branch off: Lemeki, Thamana, Rokka, and the other elephants head off into the bush, where they browse until it is time for their afternoon mud bath.

Apollo has grown up racing along the white sandy beaches of the Athi River

Apollo also spends his days exploring different parts of the vast wilderness. Rescued two years ago, when he was just six months old, Tsavo is the only home he has ever known. Despite his increasingly hulking appearance, he is still very much a baby — as his plaintive squeaks for his milk bottle constantly remind us! Rhinos are creatures of habit, so Apollo likes to follow a strict daily routine. Mornings are for browsing, until 11 o'clock sharp, when he makes his way down to the mud bath. After enjoying a milk bottle, Apollo retreats to the nearby baobab tree, where he and his Keepers spend the hottest part of the day in repose. While he loves zooming around the sandy river beaches and dusty paths around Kaluku, Apollo needs no encouragement to return home at the end of the day: He treasures bedtime and is usually the first to fall asleep.

Mkubwa is a frequent guest at the canteen, where he keeps the team company as they eat and relax

Our non-elephant orphans have a more fluid routine, so it is fascinating to see how they structure their days. After enjoying some of the Keepers’ chapati breakfast, Bristle often follows Apollo on his adventures. They rarely interact directly, but the ostrich really likes being in the young rhino’s orbit! Mkubwa, an orphaned buffalo who we rescued in February, can usually be found at the heart of the action. As adults, buffalos are fearsome creatures, but Mkubwa is an absolute darling. He seems quite smitten with Scooter and lets the warthog sashay right up to him and bop his wet nose with her snout. Mkubwa also gravitates towards the canteen, where he knows he will always find some members of staff to hang out with.

One thing is certain at Kaluku: There is action to be found around every corner!

The grounds around Kaluku have become a gathering place for all manner of wild creatures, particularly various types of antelope. It is a testament to how much the local populations trust us. The main lawn at Kaluku has become a social club of sorts, where many of our orphans meet their own kind. Just as with elephants, ex orphan antelope act as important ambassadors, bridging the divide between our dependent herd and their wild counterparts.

Sala is now living wild and a mother two times over, but she still makes her home around Kaluku

Sala, a lesser kudu, is one of our old stalwarts. She was rescued in 2017, when she was just days old. Now, she is all grown up and a fully accepted member of the local kudu population — in fact, she has given birth to two wild babies of her own! However, Sala feels very attached to the people who raised her and has chosen to make her home in the environs of Kaluku. She stops by most days, popping her head into our field manager’s house or overseeing the goings-on at the orphan stable compound.

After a day of exploring, everyone is eager to retire to their bedrooms for the night

Oka is proving to be another mainstay. This orphaned oryx came into our care back in 2019, after patrolling KWS rangers found her alone in the bush. As antelope do, Oka grew up quickly: She was barely knee-high when we rescued her, and by the end of the year, she was sporting the long, spear-like horns that are so indicative of her kind. She disappeared into the wilds of Tsavo, but we were delighted when she made a reappearance earlier this year — with a telltale round belly! Oka has chosen to spend the remainder of her pregnancy around Kaluku, and we hope she will introduce us to her baby in due course.

Munyu (left) is our mystery girl and usually keeps to herself, but she sometimes accepts an embrace from Mkubwa

While the likes of Sala and Oka are focusing on nurturing their own offspring, we are the only family our dependent orphans have ever known. Nighttime is one of the most special parts of the day, as everyone files into their cosy bedrooms, sleepy from a day of adventures. Our merry trio of Scooter, Lali, and Kwale have a particularly sweet routine. Because warthogs are burrowers by nature, we put a little box within their stable to mimic how Scooter would sleep in in the wild. Before retiring to her makeshift burrow, however, Scooter insists upon snuggling with her roommates. If either Lali or Kwale show signs of falling asleep, she nips them awake, until she deems it bedtime. Just as we do with elephants, a dedicated Keeper bunks up with the youngest orphans, so they never sleep alone.

Kaluku is a place of hope and healing for our most fragile orphans

Every life is precious. It is a privilege to raise Kenya’s orphaned wildlife, to be the family for creatures who have lost everything. It is even more of a privilege to help them reclaim their rightful place in the wild, where they can live out the future that was so nearly stolen from them.

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 here.

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