I write this as a miracle unfolds: After months of parched conditions, the heavens have opened and rain has arrived.
This brings relief after months of hardship. Our teams have been flat out, rescuing an influx of orphans, fighting fires across the Tsavo ecosystem, tracking down poachers and treating their victims. All this activity was driven by something entirely outside our control: a prolonged and brutal dry season that has gripped the landscape. Of course, this is the cycle of Tsavo. Generous rains are often followed by particularly dry years.
Discover what waiting for the rains means for us here in Tsavo.
– Angela Sheldrick
The Waiting Game
This time of year, all eyes turn to the heavens. We see the clouds building on the horizon, and all we can do is hope they herald rain — because every hot day takes its toll.
The last two years were ones of abundance. Extraordinary rains swathed the Tsavo landscape in green, proliferating life in all its forms. The old persisted and the young flourished: Babies skirted from every tree branch and bush; every elephant seemed to have a perfectly plump calf following behind.
But nature gives and nature takes, especially in Tsavo. Poor rains in April/May created a very long, gruelling dry season. Flying over the landscape, we see it unfolding every day. There are parched waterholes, game congregated on rivers, well-trod paths to the few remaining places where water can be found. Creatures are just hanging on, waiting for relief from the skies. This is a pivotal moment: If the rains arrive on time, we will have escaped to the other side. However, with climate change, we cannot take anything for granted. The rhythm of life and predictability of weather patterns are no more. As we wait, we do not know what lies ahead.
Of course, these creatures are no strangers to difficult times. Tsavo has always been a challenging landscape — and the end of any dry season is particularly raw. Tragically, it is elephants who struggle the most. One might wonder why such a formidable creature is the most vulnerable, but this is just another example of how everything in nature has its place. As an apex species, elephants would have few threats to their survival in an ideal world. So, nature has made them fragile: Elephants are greedy feeders with poor digestion, requiring large quantities of vegetation to sustain themselves. Scarcity of food has fatal consequences — and it is the young and old who are the first to fall.
The influx of orphans coming into our care is testament to this fact. Last year, we rescued four elephant calves. In the past two months alone, we have rescued more than twice that amount. Some, such as Taabu and Latika, are direct victims of the drought; others, such as Kerrio and Suguroi, were orphaned by compounding factors. In the span of a few hours last night, I received calls to rescue two separate orphans whose stories are yet to be told. Many of these calves come to us too far gone, but we approach each rescue with unerring optimism. After all, orphans of droughts gone by, such as Malima, Emoli, and Mapia, were brought back from the brink of death.
In these difficult times, it is quite literally the wisdom of the matriarchs that shepherd families to the other side. The decisions she makes mean the difference between surviving a dry season or succumbing to it — and missteps can have dire consequences. We just saw this with one of our ex orphans, Makena. As a first-time mother, she did not appreciate how harsh these conditions were for a newborn. For reasons unknown, Makena whisked her daughter off into the bush for several days and, heartbreakingly, the excursion proved too much for the tiny calf to survive.
Kinna is another ex orphan who gave birth this month. However, she is armed with years of motherhood experience. We can see how she is making a conscious effort to play it safe with baby Kaia, remaining anchored to water points to focus on nourishing both herself and her baby. We know how many compounding factors there are in fostering a vulnerable new life, but we are hopeful for little Kaia’s future.
While Tsavo’s creatures are focused on survival, we are busy defending the territory they call home. Illegal activity escalates during dry seasons, from cattle incursions to arson. Poaching always ramps up, because well-trod paths to waterholes can also serve as a map for those with nefarious intentions. This also makes work a bit easier for our Anti-Poaching Teams and pilots, as there is less vegetation to disguise poachers’ hideouts, snares, and other activities.
Times may be difficult, but life still prevails. Every day, new babies are being born into this parched landscape. Their first steps may be dusty and difficult, but the winds of change always blow though. Each challenging dry season and generous rains are part of the patchwork of existence here. Collectively, it is the years of accumulated knowledge that will help these little elephants and other creatures navigate their survival.
For this is what Tsavo is all about. It has never been a gentle place, which is what makes the bountiful previous two years so extraordinary. The signs of rain are there: baobabs in flower, weavers nesting, comiferas sprouting green shoots. Even in the communities, the old sages who have weathered countless dry seasons are predicting rain. We have spent the past weeks looking towards the heavens, poised for easier times ahead. And at last, today, our prayers were answered.
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.