Published on the 13th of December, 2017
Our Ex Orphans at the Voi stockades are very much independent of their keepers and the sanctuary of the Voi Rehabilitation Unit and have been so for many years. Every year during the dry months between August-November they migrate many kilometres away in search of better pasture. This year was the most testing year in many decades, with a serious drought engulfing the southern area of Tsavo East National Park, and of course we could not help but worry about the welfare of our orphans when so many wild elephants were succumbing to the effects of the drought, with well over two hundred elephants dying from the lack of food throughout this area. The Ex Orphan herd would be have been reliant on their matriarch, Emily, and her wisdom learnt from the wild herds, to navigate them through a life threatening challenge. Thankfully we were aware of the Ex Orphans moving some 100km away into Tsavo West and the dispersal Taita Ranches which provide such vital dry season habitat for Tsavo’s elephants. When the first rains fell in Tsavo and the waterholes one again filled with water this enabled the orphans to return to Voi. On the 4th of November, at lunch time, Ndara, her baby Neptune and Tassia were the first to check in to see their Keepers, their human family, as well as reunite with their little friends within the dependent orphan herd based at Voi.
This journey is no mean feat, as they had travelled over 100km, a journey which would take them well over a week with as small and young as Neptune, and it was the onset of the rain in the greater Tsavo region which enabled the passage for their return. Without the rain filling up natural water holes along the way and rejuvenating the vegetation, the Ex Orphans would not be able to make it all that way with their youngsters in tow.
Just after Ndara’s group arrived, the Keepers received a report from the Kenya Wildlife Service that two elephants had missed the corridor passing under the new Standard Gauge Railway, and had ended up along the Voi River on the wrong side of the fenceline. We suspected the two elephants were actually Ex Orphans, and upon arriving they found it was indeed Lesanju and Sinya! The two joyfully followed their Keepers as they escorted them to an opening in the fence, where they were able to rejoin their herd at the Stockades. They were provided with ample treats of lucerne grass and cubes which they enthusiastically devoured, before wandering off back into the Park an hour or so later. The next day, Ndara’s herd arrived in the company of our more resident Ex Orphans, Lempaute, Kivuko, Dabassa and Layoni, and it was very obvious how happy Lempaute was to be back in the company of Lesanju, her best friend since they were tiny infants only a few weeks old in the Nursery.
Exactly a week later on the 11th of November, the rest of the Ex Orphan herd including Emily, her calves Eve and Emma, Edie and her calf Eden, Sweet Sally and her little boy Safi, Lolokwe, Siria, Taveta, Mweya and two wild bulls were spotted at the Park entrance on the wrong side of the fence. They too had missed the corridor under the railway and had followed the fenceline to the Park entrance where they seemingly stood awaiting some assistance! A section of the fence was opened for them and they made their way straight to the Voi Stockade and their awaiting human family. When they arrived the adults hungrily set upon some fresh lucerne laid out for them, whilst the Keepers watched Emma, Eden and Safi running around in very apparent good health, chasing one another around the compound.
It warms the heart to not only see the Ex Orphans again after they have been away for so long, and to have them loyally return to their elephant and human friends, but what is most gratifying and uplifting is that our orphans, raised in the Nursery by humans, have mastered life in the wild, navigating the natural cycles of life and routes for survival. Just two days later early in the morning, the rest of the herd including Icholta, baby Inca, Thoma and her calf Thor, Seraa, Wasessa, Rombo and Mzima arrived at the Voi Gate, having followed the same path as Emily and also missed the corridor under the railway. Once back in the Park they walked straight to the stockades for some lucerne and water, before walking off into the Park.
A man-made object in the form of the new railway might have hampered their route somewhat, but they knew the way back, and best of all they were in the peak of good health having navigated a brutal year which sadly claimed many of their wild peers. These elephants might have lacked the wisdom and vision to move away in such a time; so much is about timing as in order to move away, the elephants need the watering points to remain with water and left too late, that opportunity is no longer there. Sadly that is what happened to so many elephants this year, left in the southern sector of Tsavo which due to the failure of the rains in April-May, was left barren of food.