We make the same promise to every orphan who comes into our care: to nurture them until they are old enough to reclaim their place in the wild. Once they have transitioned from our care, their wild existence unfolds seamlessly. Elephants are migratory by nature, and even our orphans have these ancient routes etched into their very being. With the change of seasons elephants roam great distances in search of food and water. But what of those who are unable to travel great distances? What hope do they have for a future?
For a long time, these were not questions we even had to entertain. While we had rescued many orphans who were grievously ill or injured, the passage of time healed their wounds. That all changed in early 2012. On the 11th February, Sonje entered the fold. We can’t be sure whether she was shot or speared, but whatever horrors she endured, it had fractured her right knee leaving her permanently lame. Then, just ten days later, we rescued Murera. She came to us in a terrible state, in fact every vet recommended she be euthanised. Daphne was adamant we dedicate years to her healing instead. Her hind legs and pelvis were terribly damaged from stepping on elephant spikes, while probably falling into a poachers pit trap. She came to us broken, with suppurating poisoned wounds and her forehead etched in pain, and her little body constantly contorted for months against the trauma unfolding within, it was hard to witness for everyone involved in saving her.
While both girls healed marvellously, over the years they never fully recovered from their injuries. We were faced with a quandary over their future as our first two Reintegration Units, Voi and Ithumba, sit within the vast wilderness of Tsavo. While this is an ideal setting for most elephants, it would be an untenable situation for Sonje and Murera, who simply could not cover the great distances required during the dry season.
Timing is everything, and thankfully we had just established a Saving Habitats program in the Kibwezi Forest, which was home to a thriving population of wild elephants and abuts the Chyulu Hills National Park. Food and water remained abundant throughout the year, thanks to a network of underground springs that percolate throughout the forest. It would be a perfect home for elephants like Sonje and Murera, a place where they could viably lead wild lives. And so, working closely with both the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya Wildlife Service, we established our third Reintegration Unit, Umani Springs.
When we welcomed our first orphans to Umani Springs in 2014, we wondered how it would all unfold. It is always rather fraught starting something like this from scratch, but we prepared well and considered every aspect of their future, not least of all the fact that they must be moved with their best friends who were without crippling injuries. Now, seven years and 14 orphans later, we can wholeheartedly say it is a triumph, surpassing our expectations. Over the years more orphans with severe injuries have come into our care and they too have graduated to Umani, this includes Mwashoti maimed by a wire snare on his foot, Alamaya who was viciously mauled by hyenas leaving him castrated and requiring extensive surgery to mend his urethra, and Enkesha with her partially severed trunk due to a snare trap. Because Umani Springs is a smaller unit than Voi or Ithumba, its herd is remarkably close-knit. Everyone supports one another unconditionally. Those who are not physically compromised step up for those who are; those who have physical disabilities give strength to their friends who are grappling with emotional scars. For instance, while Murera and Sonje are the indisputable matriarchs of Umani Springs, able-bodied Lima Lima acts as their legs. She leads where the older girls cannot, serving as a bodyguard and a scout in equal measure. While Murera and Sonje remain slower and weaker than most elephants, they have exceptional gravitas, and the other orphans respect and trust them implicitly.
In 2020, when we were planning Luggard’s gradation from the Nairobi Nursery, Umami Springs was the natural choice. Our lionhearted boy has overcome so much, but he will always be maimed by the bullets that riddled his hind legs. The resultant injuries stunted his growth and left him with a severe, permanently compromised leg. When he first arrived the muscle contraction and override of his shattered bones was so extreme that operating was never going to yield positive results.
Upon Luggard’s arrival at Umani Springs, everyone instantly stepped up to the plate, recognising that he was the most broken of them all. For his first four months there, Sonje and Murera never left his side, waiting outside his stockade in the morning and escorting him back into his bedroom at night. Slowly, slowly, they recruited others into nanny duties, entrusting Quanza and Lima Lima with their precious charge. Remaining in Luggard’s small orbit is quite restrictive for an older elephant, so the four girls have worked out a wonderful routine to ensure that he is never alone not even for a minute. One assumes the role of nanny, usually for the entire day or occasionally for a shorter shift, before passing the baton to the next. They dote on him unreservedly and fuss over the smallest details, sometimes even shielding him in a protective circle if they feel the others are getting too boisterous. Luggard relishes being the centre of such loving attention, and we have never seen him happier emotionally.
Umami Springs really is a place of healing and one only needs to look at its orphans to be reminded of this. Murera an elephant who we thought might never walk again, now leads an entire herd. Mwashoti, who nearly lost his foot to a poacher’s snare, charges around today with barely a remnant of his dreadful injury. Quanza, who grappled with post-traumatic stress after seeing her entire family gunned down by poachers, has found happiness and purpose once more. Even Shukuru, who struggled with mysterious health ailments for years, has finally rounded a corner.
These stories galvanise us when orphans like Rama come into our care. Given that he is bow-legged from birth compromising his movement, it may seem like the odds are not in our newest rescue’s favour. However, as we know from experience, there is always hope, and while we put robust measures in place to try to improve his condition, Umani Springs builds upon that hope. It allows us to deliver on our promise that we make to every orphan, enabling even those elephants who have been robbed of everything to live a full and wild life, in a beautiful safe environment that we manage and protect positioned within an extensive unspoilt ecosystem.