June has been an extremely hectic month with three elephant relocations to our Reintegration Units, which has seen us move a total of eight older Nursery orphans to Tsavo during this cooler month. These orphans now have the opportunity of exposure to the wild elephant herds, honing their social and emotional skills and equipping them with all they will need to know before successfully assimilating into the wild population in time.
Ambo and Jotto are two very special elephants, raised from infancy at our Nairobi Nursery, who have been a part of our Nursery establishment for a number of years. They will be sorely missed by the men who were very much a part of their everyday, but at the same time there is always a great sense of fulfilment at these times, because of the achievement of getting them to this stage, and an excited expectancy as they are bid farewell and their care handed over to our trusted and very skilled Ithumba Keepers. Our Ithumba Keepers are used to the older elephants, their needs and quirky ways, and have an understanding of the independent ex orphans, their dynamics along with those of the wild herds that visit too.
Choosing where the elephants are to go, whether our Voi, Ithumba or Umani Reintegration Units always takes some careful thought, and it is based around a number of factors, including friendships and the need to keep the three establishments even in numbers, for ease of management of our ground operations. Ambo and Jotto were earmarked for Ithumba, as the influence of the wild bulls will be an important life line they can benefit from for a successful wild transition, a journey that will take many more years to complete, and this is now the right time for this next phase to start, as they were fast outgrowing the Nursery!
It was beginning to look like this move was was going to be a very tricky affair, with Jotto initially simply refusing to enter the elephant moving truck, and so it was that their original move date was postponed to accommodate a longer familiarisation to take place. Jotto finally cracked it one day, following his milk bottle into the truck and from that moment on neither of these two boys looked back. They proceeded to enter the truck without a fuss as the familiarization routine continued over a number of days prior to their scheduled date of departure.
Tuesday, 11th June, was the final date set for their translocation and in the wee hours of the morning our two precious boys were loaded without even a backward glance. The doors were closed and they headed down with Keeper Peter in the travelling compartment for company. They behaved very well throughout the journey, with just a brief stop made to refuel and a second to cut fresh greens along the way, so their convoy made excellent time. At the Kibwezi turn off from the Nairobi-Mombasa road the convoy met up with Robert and Angela who had travelled at dawn from our field base in Kaluku so as to meet up with the them all and drive the last and final leg to Ithumba together. The new tarmac road now makes this part of the journey fairly easy going unlike past years when it was still a dirt road.
On arrival at the Ithumba stockades they were greeted by the Ithumba Keepers, fed some milk, and then finally opened up to walk outside and inspect their new surroundings. These two best friends came out of the truck looking rather confused by events, but very quickly they were enveloped by their friends Malima, Mapia and Kuishi who had made the same journey only 10 days prior. Their old Nursery mates have settled in remarkably well and were a great comfort from the outset, appearing thrilled to welcome them. Then came the steady stream of other dependent orphans to meet with them, and given that Ambo and Jotto have spent so much time in the Nursery, spanning three years, they knew many of the dependent herd now living their lives at Ithumba, having shared Nursery time together as little babies.
Jotto is a clinging vine, so he stuck to his Keeper Peter not venturing too far into the midst of the excitement. Ambo, on the other hand, seemed very at home after only a short time. After the meet and greets they ambled off from the stockade compound browsing with the herd and their Keepers headed in the direction of the midday mud bath because being a warm day, and coming from a cold and wet Nairobi, this was a dramatic contrast for the two new arrivals. The browse in Tsavo always excites any newcomers given that they are now suddenly exposed to a whole new buffet of food, much of which they don’t experience in Nairobi. While they wandered off browsing there was huge interest in the boys, with all the girls trailing them around showing their interest, Rapa as a bull was fascinated by them too. The Ithumba dependent orphan herd now numbers 34, a real sight to behold.
By the time they arrived at the midday mud bath area it was abuzz with activity, with huge wild bulls present, and a number of ex orphans (orphans raised by the Trust and now living a fully wild life) in their midst. The new arrivals were ushered along and shown the routine. The milk at Ithumba is mixed with the slightly brackish water from the area which Ambo rejected at first, but very soon was gulping down his fill. They were shown to the water trough and then invited to swim in the waterhole, but declined, instead opting for the smaller and shallower waterhole where they enjoyed a splash around, with Esampu leading the way, and while our new arrivals splashed some mud on themselves they still resisted a swim. Later Ambo strolled up to some of the wild bulls totally unperturbed by their size, which caught the keepers off guard, and the wild boys having seen it all before just looked on patiently at the proceedings unfolding before them, and accommodated Ambo's interest.
The wild bulls of Ithumba, the old familiar faces who return in the dry season year on year, have adopted the project completely, understanding the routines and savouring their time fraternizing at the midday mud bath with the dependent orphans and their Keepers alike. They are completely calm and it is easy to forget that they are in fact wild elephants, and not part of our extended ex orphans fraternity. Our old faithfuls are incredibly disciplined and respectful of the keepers and the babies' needs, and it is so humbling to witness the scene of these towering giants next to the future generation of young elephants who will rely so heavily on their wisdom and years of knowledge that they have encased in their big brains, ensuring they are able to navigate this vast wild land that is Tsavo.
There is so much our orphans need to know about the changing seasons, the threats, the favourable areas, the all important water points, and the dos and don’ts of elephant society. These are the giant boys who will impart the discipline and knowledge so pivotal to the success of this project. For our two little boys their presence could not be a more impressive sight, 40 plus bulls choosing to passively share their first mud bath session with them!
Ithumba has had poor rain and remains relatively dry for this time of year; the rain seems to have fallen in isolated pockets and has not been widespread. The positive about Ithumba is, despite being dry, the food and browse for elephants remains plentiful. It does mean the dry conditions bring in more and more wild elephants relying on the permanent water points around the Ithumba area. Our ex orphans are beginning to return, even those who have been away a long time, and in the last couple of days this included Olare’s herd, with Melia, Kalama and Tumaren returning after an absence for over three months, thrilled to find five new babies in the mix. They then proceeded to be quite a challenge for the Keepers as they embarked on a kidnapping spree, desperately trying to spirit the new babies away with them. Keeping the naughty, broody, ex orphan girls from Olare’s herd off our latest arrivals has certainly kept the Keepers busy and alert, always having to be one step ahead of things! Ambo has proved a hot favorite and their focus was on trying the get Ambo for themselves!!!
By evening time the orphans came running back to their night stockades and we watched in amazement as Jotto, Ambo, Sapalan, Malima, Kuishi and Mapia shared the same night stockades. They had clearly been fully briefed before arrival as the whole process, despite being their first time, was seamless, and as a casual observer you would never know this was a first for them. They fed contentedly, drank their fill and then lay down to sleep amidst their Nursery pals, with only Sapalan the gentle older occupant, but even he would remember Ambo and Jotto from his Nursery days with them.