Over the years we have planned and completed many translocation journeys when we move our little Nursery dependents on to one of the Trust’s three Reintegration Units within the vast Tsavo conservation area. In the recent weeks, towards the end of May, we completed two moves where six of our oldest Nursery orphans were safely delivered to our Voi Reintegration Unit, including our long time Nursery mini matriarch Mbegu.
On the 1st of June the next trip was planned, this time destined for our Ithumba Reintegration Unit in the Northern Area of Tsavo East National Park, comprising of three little rebels whose mischievous behavior meant that Benjamin was going to have his work cut out for him as head Keeper of our Ithumba Unit! We were mindful that if these babies were to remain without Mbegu’s quiet but steadying influence at the Nursery we might well have the rest of our Nursery herd emulating their behavior and then the keepers would really have their hands full!
No surprise who the leader of the ‘rascal contingent’ might be, Esampu herself! This little girl was born 'naughty' and it seemed now was the opportune time for her to have the influence of older elephants to ensure she grows up with the manners required by wild herds. Her friendship with Mteto, her partner in crime, made Mteto an obvious choice to accompany Esampu, while Mundusi, rescued last year, is ready for the next phase given the rambunctious bull that he is and his friendship with the other two making him an obvious choice to accompany the two girls. This decision on who to move was rather spontaneous as the three became increasingly more mischievous without the influence of mini matriarch Mbegu on the Nursery herd. With twenty other babies in the Nursery fold we could not risk the creation of twenty Esampu clones, the keepers simply wouldn't have the energy required to manage them!
Given that these three are still quite young we knew that the excitement from the older orphans at the Ithumba end was going to be impressive, but nothing could have prepared us for the momentous day that unfolded.
Given how tricky these three had the potential of becoming we decided not to do any of the usual training protocols in order to get them used to the elephant mover truck prior to their trip. That would only alert them to something being amiss, and we suspected once they knew that something was up it would make for a challenging loading time. Instead we opted for the stealth approach, catching them by surprise and off guard, and this was the right approach as it turned out, working a treat on the day.
Anticipating a challenging morning the Nairobi team began with the moon still high in the sky at 2.30 am but were surprised with how smoothly things went, largely due to the fact that the three had absolutely no idea what was unfolding at such an early hour, just that things were certainly different from their regular routine. Mundusi was led into the truck first, clearly bewildered by events, he was followed closely by Mteto and then, comforted by the presence of her friends in the elephant moving truck, Esampu was led in last without much fuss.
Our little band of 'naughty rebels' were accompanied by two very experienced keepers to mitigate any potential drama on their journey. Due to the early morning start the DSWT entourage were well past the Nairobi environs without traffic delay and made the journey in excellent time, despite some road works along the final leg to ithumba. In the company of firm friends, together with-their beloved keepers and an endless supply of milk and greens throughout, these three babies behaved impeccably!
The truck eventually pulled up at the Ithumba stockades loading bay at 9.00am sharp. The doors opened and three very calm babies nonchalantly exited from their respective travel compartments as if it was a another regular day! The regular day was however soon about to change for these three! First they were joined by old friends from their Nursery days Maramoja, Rapa and Pare who remembered them well ( who could forget Esampu! ) then introductions of the dependent orphans happened in manageable groups of three or four at a time, until all the Ithumba dependent orphans had met the new babies. After taking their fill of water and meeting up with all members from the dependent group, their keepers gently guided the now large dependent herd out to browse, all the while making their way in the direction of the midday mud bath.
The news of new little babies spread quickly and first to latch onto this was Mutara’s herd consisting of bigger girls Suguta, Turkwel, Chaimu, Kainuk, Sities and bulls Kanjoro and Kilaguni; they wasted no time intercepting the group. These ex orphans set the tone of high excitement by trumpeting, charging around with tails up and outstretched ears, and thrashing through bushes, all rather intimidating for our new babies who were wide eyed. Esampu did seem to be taking things in her stride and remained remarkably casual about proceedings; Mteto was leaving nothing to chance and stuck to her keepers and her friend Esampu like glue. Mundusi of the three appeared the most alarmed, giving off baby screams from time to time.
News continued to travel far and wide and soon a huge bull was spotted walking down the road towards the action with ex orphan Makireti appearing out of the bushes excitedly, then ex orphan Kinna with wild born calves Kama and Gawa in tow appeared on the road and ex orphans and wild friends kept coming from every direction. All were very vocal while in hot pursuit of the new comers who were by now making their way, still in the company of their keepers and dependent Orphans, to the midday mud bath location. For the next hour the whole mud bath area became filled with elephants of all sizes from huge wild bulls, to a crazy wild female charging around trumpeting, along with the dependent orphans who later plunged into the mud bath for a swim closely followed by the newcomers!
Later Galana, Gawa's mum, made an entrance, however she only had eyes for a very handsome bull - she is obviously in season as a courtship then ensued in the bushes beyond. Bongo with his distinguishing one tusk strode in on the action not wanting to miss proceedings as well as ex orphan bull Zurura and numerous others. It was difficult to keep tabs on the babies who within five minutes were swept away by ex orphans Kinna and Mulika who were extremely enamored with Ithumba’s new arrivals. The keepers had to be fully alert at all times to ensure no 'kidnapping' went on and this was challenging with the wild female in their midst who was still charging about and making a nuisance of herself! At times they had to take swift action to avoid her threatening mock charges. She was Kinna’s friend and finally when she joined the orphans in the water for a swim, in the company of Kinna and the wild born babies, she cooled down and became notably calmer so everybody could relax a little and proceed normally.
All this must have been incredibly daunting for the Nairobi trio, to be the focus of such widespread attention. They did seem to take it in their stride however as they took in their new surroundings, but Esampu, Mteto and Mundusi were not the only ones wide eyed, our Nairobi keepers were finding it hard to fully comprehend all that was unfolding before them! Despite their reputations our trio were as good as gold, and they made the transition as easy as it possibly could be and we feel confident they will not be short of love and attention at Ithumba as they had one of the warmest welcomes we have ever witnessed.
This is now a new phase for them, but they will be very much our responsibility for many years to come still requiring their milk, the love and protection of their Keepers, and it will take a good long time before they have the confidence required to make their first steps towards a more independent life, anywhere between five to eight years. In the meantime they will have older orphans around them every day to ensure they grow into well behaved socially acceptable little elephants.