Ithumba - behind the scenes

Published on the 30th of December, 2020

In Ithumba, the orphans prepare for their day with the rising sun. They begin to stir just as the first rays peek above the horizon. Some slowly get to their feet — many of the younger elephants still sleep lying down — while others are already snacking at the branches left over from the night before. Outside the stockades, shadowy figures emerge from the wilds of Tsavo. These are our wild-living orphans, who like to begin the day with us when they are in the area.

The team has already been up for quite some time. There are currently 38 dependent orphans at Ithumba, and caring for them is no small task. In the mixing area, several Keepers prepare warm bottles for the elephants who are still milk-dependent. At this point, the air always erupts in a chorus of rumbles and trumpets from the orphans; some impatient for their milk, others just excited to get the day started. Just like at the Nursery, we feed in shifts to keep the process as orderly as possible. The orphans know the drill, lining up at the back of their stockades where the Keepers dole out bottles. After everyone's had their fill, the stockade gates are opened. While many dart out, eager to catch up with their friends, others prefer to meander slowly. Ambo takes this to the next level, and usually has to be coaxed out of his stockade! He is not a morning elephant.

Outside, the orphans continue their morning feast with lucerne, a nutritious type of alfalfa. Visiting ex orphans, and even wild friends, also get to enjoy this second course. They don’t blink an eye when the Keepers walk among them, dispersing flakes of lucerne. During the dry season, when sustenance is hard to come by, we notice more wild visitors arrive to take advantage of this sunrise banquet.

By a general consensus, the dependent herd decides that it is time to move onto the next activity. A few of the orphans walk in the direction of the bush, then look back, as if signaling to their friends that it is time to go. While a team of Keepers leads them out into the wilds of Tsavo, another group remains behind to clean up the compound. After mucking out the stockades, they bring all the orphans’ leftover branches to the woodchipper, where they are turned into mulch. This is just one of the many ways we ensure everything is as sustainable as possible, and nothing goes to waste.

After a night of heavy foot traffic, the water troughs outside the stockades always need a thorough clean and top-up. Our bowser arrives, dispensing crystal clear water in a matter of minutes — and we mustn't take this convenience for granted. Water, or lack thereof, was one of the greatest challenges when we began our operations in Ithumba. In arid areas, we typically install boreholes to dredge water from the ground. However, this part of Tsavo is marked by high salinity levels, rendering its water undrinkable. We were left with no alternative but to fill up bowsers at the Tiva River and then transport it north to Ithumba, a cumbersome and time-consuming operation. That all changed earlier this year, when we opened up a desalination plant in Ithumba. Now, we can take saline water directly from the Ithumba boreholes, process it through the plant, and make it potable. This innovation is a game-changer for our teams and the KWS units who are also based in Ithumba. The creatures who call Ithumba home benefit most of all. It is no coincidence that, since we began providing drinkable water, wildlife have come back to the area in droves.

Out in the bush, our orphans and their Keepers meet some of these creatures face-to-face. By now, most of Ithumba’s wild residents are aware of our unique human-elephant family and give the group a wide berth. Elephants are the exception to this rule: Through their incredible means of communication, the complexities of which we can only marvel at, word has clearly gotten out that we are a safe haven. Decades ago, long before we had a presence here, poachers decimated Ithumba’s elephant population and the survivors all but abandoned the area. Over the years, we have seen a steady uptick in wild elephants returning, and now it is common to see 50 or even 100 in a single day. We record all these details through our Keepers' daily diary entries, which document the orphans’ antics and all the other notable goings-on. It is remarkable to chart how the elephant situation has evolved since we established Ithumba in 2004.

The midday mud bath has become the designated social hour for Ithumba’s elephants. The orphans arrive promptly at 11 o’clock for their bottles. After guzzling their milk, they continue on to the water hole for a swim. Here, they are usually joined by a number of wild bulls. While these visits are a regular occurrence, the Ithumba herd is always delighted to have such impressive elephants in their midst. The bulls tend to loll in the deepest parts of the pool, where they can submerge their enormous bodies in the water, while the orphans cluster by the edge, splashing around like a school of fish. Some, like Esampu, can’t get enough of swimming and have to be coaxed out; others, like well victim Kauro, are understandably cautious of water and prefer to spend more time soil dusting.

While the orphans keep themselves entertained, the Keepers enjoy their lunch in the shade. They dine with an assortment of creatures around them, hornbills greedily flapping their wings and squirrels chirping impatiently. There is even a shrewd group of vervet monkeys who follow the Keepers from the stockades out into the bush, knowing that they will benefit from these lunchtime handouts!

Covered in a fresh layer of golden soil, our gilded herd heads back into the bush. They spend the next several hours in discovery mode, exploring new places and revisiting favourite haunts. Each individual is encouraged to spend this time as they please; some browse sedately, while others — typically, the growing bulls — challenge friend after friend to pushing matches. All these activities help them prepare for their wild lives, when they will have all of Tsavo at their feet.

As the sun begins to set, it is time to head home. Weiried from their day’s adventures, the orphans happily follow their Keepers back, knowing that cozy stockades and a final milk feed of the day await them. There are five 'bedrooms' in Ithumba, and everyone innately knows which is theirs. The youngest orphans sleep in the far left stockade, with each stockade housing progressively older groups. The far right stockade is located furthest from the Keepers’ quarters and closest to the exterior water troughs, so the oldest orphans who sleep within have greater opportunity to fraternize with wild elephants who come by during the night.

While sundown signals the end of the day for our orphans, it also heralds in our second wave of wild visitors. We never know who to expect. Some nights, just a small bachelor herd of bulls turns up. Other days, dozens of wild-living orphans and friends emerge from the bush, with their tiny babies scampering at their feet. Throughout the night, visitors continue to filter through. Some choose to spend several hours outside the stockades, knowing it is a place they can rest safely; others stop only for a quick drink before moving on. That is the magical thing about Ithumba: Not so long ago, it was rare to see even a single elephant here. Now, generations of elephants converge beneath the star-studded sky. In time, our orphans will join their ranks. But for now, these little miracles sleep soundly in their stockades, while the promise of a wild future awaits them outside.

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