Benevolent Bulls

Published on the 6th of November, 2023

Appearances can be deceiving. At first glance, a bull elephant looks terrifically imposing — and he is. But there is so much more to these remarkable creatures.

We often focus on the nurturing, sensitive nature of female elephants. However, in their solid, stoic way, bulls are their emotional equals. They are guides and guardians of the elephant world.

This month, join me as we explore the benevolence of bulls.

– Angela Sheldrick

Benevolent Bulls

Females are revered as the matriarchs, mothers, nannies, and nurturers of elephant society, but one cannot dismiss the roles bulls play. They are the guardians of their species. Often referred to as ‘lone rangers,’ bulls actually lead dynamic social lives. While they don’t live in a solid herd structure, they too enjoy and seek out the company of other elephants. Bulls look out for each other and can be touchingly protective of females and babies.

To this point, bulls have played pivotal roles in several of our orphan rescues. Orphans are often shunned from family herds. This is a harsh but necessary truth; baby elephants are very greedy feeders, and mothers would struggle to produce enough milk to sustain both their own offspring and an orphan. However, bulls don’t have such priorities at play. While they cannot provide infants with the milk they need to survive, they can provide companionship and protection.

Bulls can be surprisingly gentle and nurturing

In fact, one of our newest additions, Talek, is alive today thanks in part to a benevolent bull. We’re not sure how she lost her family, but she was originally reported trailing tour vehicles in the Mara. As soon as our SWT/KWS Mara Vet Unit wrapped up the hippo treatment they had been attending at the time, they drove to the scene — only to find that the calf had evaporated into the wilderness. We hoped that she had been scooped up by her herd, but she reappeared a few days later, this time walking in the shadow of an enormous bull.

Talek and her guardian bull

The team proceeded to observe the pair all morning, to be absolutely certain that Talek was indeed an orphan. While he wasn’t overly effusive, the bull welcomed his fellow traveller, leading her through plains and luggas on a companionable browsing journey. When the team went in to rescue Talek, the bull continued on his way, perhaps satisfied that his part in Talek’s story had come to an end.

Kiasa's rescue started with an unusual sighting

Talek’s story mirrors another rescue that unfolded almost six years ago to the day. During a routine patrol of the southern sector of Tsavo East, SWT pilot Neville Sheldrick noticed a tiny elephant flanked by two large bulls. He scoured the surrounding parkland, hoping to find her herd, but there were no other elephants in the area. A follow-up helicopter patrol confirmed his findings, or rather, lack thereof.

An infant calf was striding through Tsavo in the company of two bulls

Tsavo was in the grips of a very intense drought at the time, and one of its victims — an adult female — had been found nearby just a few days earlier. How the orphan came into the bulls’ orbit remains a mystery, but they generously allowed her to round out their trio.

Kiasa today (second in line), with her 'brothers' Kapei, Kiombo, and Maktao

Many of you will recognise the subject of this story as Kiasa, who is now thriving at our Umani Springs Reintegration Unit. (Ironically, Kiasa is still flanked by bulls: Kiombo and Maktao, with whom she graduated from the Nursery, are like brothers to her.)

Kandecha with his band of bulls

And of course, no story about the benevolence of bulls is complete without mentioning Kandecha. In 2010, my husband, Robert Carr-Hartley, was doing an aerial recce in Tsavo East when he saw a striking bull with perfectly symmetrical ivory that swept to the ground. The following day, our team came across the same tusker, this time in the company of a dozen equally majestic companions. They were surprised to find so many bulls gathered together, with nary a female herd in sight.

The bulls had circled protectively around the young orphan

The reason soon became clear: At the heart of the quorum, dwarfed by his impressive friends, was a yearling calf. He was obviously an orphan, and realising his plight, the bulls had circled round to protect him from predators. Our SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit trailed the group at a distance for the rest of the day, hoping that the calf’s mother might magically reappear to claim her baby. But sadly, that was not to be. Although the youngster looked very relaxed in and amongst the bulls, his body was already starting to show telltale signs of milk deprivation. We consulted with KWS, who greenlit a rescue.

Kandecha (right) is living wild and currently a trusted companion to our ex-orphan mums

Robert, the vet unit, and six of our most experienced Voi Keepers gathered for the rescue. Although they braced themselves for a complex operation, the bulls didn’t show any resistance and dissolved into the wilderness. With their duties relieved, we rescued Kandecha and brought him to the Nursery. Today, he is living wild in Tsavo East, although he continues to visit our Ithumba Reintegration Unit — usually in the company of ex-orphan mums and their young babies. I can’t help but think that his first role models would be very proud of the gentle, patient bull he has become.

The wild bull appeared at Ithumba with an arrow wound

I could fill the pages of a book with stories of benevolent bulls, but I will close here with a final anecdote that unfolded at Ithumba just a few months ago. In early July, a bull elephant briefly appeared at the stockades. The Keepers immediately noticed that he had an arrow wound in his front right leg joint, but the hour was late and he disappeared into the wilderness before a treatment could be mobilised.

To our shock, two ex-orphans escorted him back to the stockades

A few days later, to our delight and disbelief, ex-orphans Zurura and Kasigau strolled up to the Ithumba compound with their wild friend in tow. The wild bull proceeded to walk inside one of the stockades (which is almost unheard-of for a wild elephant) and planted himself at the compound. He made it abundantly clear that he was asking for help.

Zurura was particularly attentive throughout treatment

An arrow to the joint can have lethal consequences for an elephant, but because our vet unit helped him in time, the bull has made a full recovery. In fact, the team did the treatment right outside the Ithumba stockades. Incredibly, all the wild bulls present were completely at ease, understanding that their comrade was receiving help. 18-year-old Zurura and 14-year-old Kasigau, who seemed to be close friends with the bull, stood guard throughout. Zurura was particularly attentive, walking right up to the team as they tended to the wound. Once the treatment was complete and the bull was back on his feet, he escorted him back into the wilderness.

Even the visiting wild bulls were unconcerned by the treatment

We will never truly know what unfolded to bring that bull back into our orbit, but given what I know about elephants, but it is safe to surmise — because we have seen this on numerous occasions — that Zurura, Kasigau, and other wild bulls conveyed the message that help could be found at Ithumba.

As these stories remind us, bulls are so much more than the lone rangers of elephant society. They are socially connected and highly sensitive, full of care and compassion. They look after our own — be it a big bull in need of help, or a tiny orphan in need of a family. We can learn a lot from these bulwarks of the natural world.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

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