With the Nairobi Nursery almost bursting at the seams from the influx of new orphaned baby elephants rescued in the last couple of months, the decision was made to transfer three of the older Nursery orphans to the Ithumba stockades in Tsavo East National Park. The three elephants chosen have been selected as they have shown that they are ready to make the transition and begin their journey back into the wild herds of Tsavo. This is a slow process as they remain milk dependent for two more years, and Keeper dependent for at least another 3 years before beginning to remain out of the night stockades with the ex orphans and wild herds of Northern Tsavo. They will however be exposed to both almost on a daily basis and their new phase begins.
Makireti, who was discovered abandoned on community lands in the Ziwani area near Tsavo West National Park, arrived at the Nairobi Nursery over two years ago at approximately one year of age. Ishanga, also rescued from an area close to where Makireti was found, arrived at the Nursery just under two years ago when she was just one year old. Kasigau is the oldest of the orphans to be relocated to Ithumba having arrived at the Nursery nearly a year ago at the age of approximately two years and four months. For the past couple of weeks these three orphans have been in training for their big move to Tsavo and have been practicing getting into the DSWTs special elephant-mover truck. Several times each day the Nursery Keepers have been enticing the orphans into the truck with loving calls and plenty of milk, persuading the orphans that the trucks comfortable compartments scattered with soft hay are just like their safe stockades. Makireti and Ishanga showed no fear of the elephant-mover and happily followed their Keepers forward into the truck, whilst Kasigau was a little more dubious. Each day Kasigau became more relaxed with the procedure but still showed signs of apprehension and some days refused to follow his milk into the truck at all.
The evening before the big journey all of the Nursery orphans were in good spirits, the Keepers saw little evidence that any of them knew that three of their herd would soon be leaving forever, yet Kasigau was being particularly suspicious that day refusing to get into the elephant-mover truck at all and causing all of the Keepers a lot of trouble. The Nursery team were quite worried that they would have a real fight on their hands to get Kasigau into the truck the next morning and for this reason they planned a much earlier start than normal. The night was quiet when all of the Keepers crept out of bed at 2 oclock in the morning and set to work preparing the elephant-mover and the three orphans for their big day ahead. With the unusual night-time activities some of the other orphans began to call out in the darkness, with Sities, Shukuru and Naipoki making the most noise, worrying about what was happening. Bottles full of enticing milk sat waiting in wheelbarrows and in the trucks compartments, whilst all of the Keepers rushed here and there with greens, dairy cubes, water and other items needed for the journey. Edwin, the Head Keeper gave the three orphans an injection of Stresnil at 2.45am, which works to relax the elephants and soothe their anxiety whilst making them easier to handle. Ten minutes later Makireti was led out of her stable and coaxed towards the elephant-mover by her Keeper and a bottle of milk. She gently strolled into the truck without any difficulty enjoying another bottle or two of milk whilst her compartment door was quietly closed behind her. Next to be led to the truck was Ishanga, who again followed her Keeper with complete trust, focused on her milk bottle she walked calmly into her new compartment, whilst the other Keepers carefully secured the gate.
With Kasigau's reaction to the truck the previous day all the Keepers were on hand and prepared with ropes encase he panicked and made an escape attempt. Lured out of his stockade with a bottle of milk Kasigau took one step at a time through the stockade grounds whilst being called sweetly by his Keeper. When arriving at the floodlit area were the truck was waiting he slowed down to a crawl but didnt take his eyes of his milk bottle. Squirting milk into Kasigaus eager mouth the Keeper walked backwards very gently into the truck, the other Keepers creeping up behind ready to gently close the door before Kasigau had the chance to decide to reverse out, but after ten minutes the mission was complete and Kasigau was safely enclosed in the elephant-mover comfortably enjoying another bottle of milk next door to Ishanga and Makireti.
The three Keepers chosen to accompany the orphans on their journey were Peter, Jackson and Dismas. Saying their farewells to the other Keepers who shouted back safari njema (have a good trip), the elephants travel companions climbed into the back of the truck. The elephant-movers engine growled to life at 3.30am with James, the driver, ready to deliver his precious cargo safely to Ithumba, a long seven-hour journey south east of Nairobi. After driving through the empty darkness of Nairobis ordinarily busy roads the elephants were soon cruising smoothly down the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. After just over three hours and as the sun was rising in the sky welcoming another day in Kenya, the truck gently slowed and stopped at the side of the road for a much welcomed milk and greens stop. Makireti, Ishanga and Kasigau were all doing well and eager to get their next dose of milk, which Peter mixed up quickly whilst Dismas and Jackson disappeared into the bush to retrieve some fresh and delicious greens. Some locals in the area soon appeared and were intrigued by the truck, peeking through the compartment doors and helping the Keepers to carry bundles of greens to the orphans who were waiting excitedly, waving their trunks through the partitions.
After a fifteen minute break and a good feed, the truck was back on the road and making good time having made a very quick stop for fuel at a little village called Makindu. Passing the shadowy outline of the northern end of the Chyulu Hills and the gateway to the Kibwezi Forest, the turnoff was made at the junction leading to Ithumba and the northern end tip of Tsavo East National Park. The smooth tarmac soon turned into a dirt track making the elephant-mover slow in speed, but the translocation team and orphans were lucky as the weather was being kind and the sun was hidden behind a thick veil of cloud keeping the compartments cool and the elephants more comfortable. Cruising over the bridge at the Athi River, which was flowing powerfully and surrounded by hundreds of donkeys carrying containers full of water for their owners, the truck slowly made its way through the Yatta Gap, an opening in the Yatta Plateau leading towards yet drier plains in a much more arid climate. Crossing the dried-up Tiva River the elephant-mover pushed on arriving at the Tsavo East National Park gate at 9.30am. After a short drive through the Park the orphans soon reach their destination at the Ithumba stockades, and there, eagerly awaiting their arrival, are all of the ex-orphans and several wild elephants including Kijani, Mgeni and Kijanas wild friend, creating quite a remarkable welcome party. The Ithumba Keepers were surprised that the ex-orphans had returned yet again at 10.00am having shown up earlier in the morning for a hand-out of Lucerne and some fresh water. They arrived in perfect time shortly before the Nairobi orphans appearance, obviously knowing yet again through mysterious ways that more arrivals were on their way. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, her daughter Angela Sheldrick, the Executive Director of the Trust, and her two sons Taru and Roan were also present for this special occasion, excited to witness the new arrivals meet their new elephant family.
Pulling up to the debarkation platform the truck gently positioned itself so the orphans could walk out safely. Before the truck could even come to a halt Wendi and Lualeni were already surrounding the cargo-hold, smelling the compartments and trumpeting excitedly. The other elephants were soon also pushing their way forward, holding their trunks high in the air trying to smell the new arrivals, whilst the Ithumba Keepers tried to keep them all back so the Nursery orphans could walk out of the truck quietly. Peter, Jackson and Dismas jumped out of the side door of the truck, greeting their Keeper friends and the Ithumba orphans before carefully opening the elephant-mover compartment gates and welcoming Makireti, Ishanga and Kasigau into their new home and herd.
Makireti was first out of the truck, immediately embraced by Wendi and Lualeni. Ishanga and Kasigau followed on shortly, and all three new orphans were soon encircled by 30 ex-orphans and 15 Keeper dependent smaller orphans, receiving lots of trunk kisses and reassuring rumbles. As the welcome party showered love onto the new arrivals, a herd of ten wild elephants appeared out of the bush with several young calves, whilst the Keepers gave the Nursery orphans some milk and lots of encouragement.
Makireti, Ishanga and Kasigau followed their Keepers carefully, nervous of the huge wild elephants wanting to greet them, Makireti was especially alarmed by the big tuskers, letting out a few screams and running to the protection of her human Keepers. After a drink at the stockades water trough, which is still being filled daily to quench the thirst of hundreds of elephants, the Keepers led the Nursery orphans out of the stockade grounds and up towards Fisi (Hyaena) Hill for their first day out in the wilds of Ithumba and to meet the Ithumba orphans. Kinna and Lualeni followed the Nairobi orphans out into the bush, staying with them for the rest of the day until they all returned to the stockades at just after 5 oclock in the evening, where the ex-orphans including Wendi and Mwendi were waiting for them.
The Nairobi Keepers had joined the new arrivals in the bush, staying close to them to offer them reassurance and to let them know that their new home is safe and that the other Ithumba Keepers will be their new friends with Dismis remaining with them indefinitely in Ithumba to provide the continuity they need. They were happy and comforted to see that all three orphans had a good day out at Ithumba and had enjoyed the company of the other Ithumba orphans, their old Nursery friends, and were especially happy to see Kalama, who they knew well from Nairobi who was always so affectionate to her Keeper family. Led into their new enclosure at the stockades just after 5.30pm the new arrivals feasted on milk and greens being watched intently by Wendi, whilst Mwendi chased one of the Ithumba Keepers playfully around the compound. Not used to the fences and the compound layout the new orphans had a run in with one of the fence-lines, which made the Keepers turn on the electric-current to deter them from breaking through the barrier. But with Kalama in their enclosure with them they slowly started to relax and play with each other, throwing twigs and branches around under the careful eyes of their Keepers.
Makireti, Ishanga and Kasigau are at the beginning of yet another adventure having grown and learnt many lessons at the Nairobi Nursery. With the company of the dependent orphans, ex-orphans and the wild elephant herds of Ithumba they will be taught the rules of the wild and the strict elephant etiquette needed in order to survive as part of a herd in the depths of Tsavo East National Park.