Saving one life paves the way for so many others. If one ever needed a reminder of this, one only need look to the story of Yatta.
Over the years, we have been introduced to many Ithumba ‘grandbabies’ — a wild calf born to an orphan we rescued, raised, and reintegrated back into the wild. But this past week, a special branch appeared on the family tree. For the very first time, one of our Ithumba orphans became a grandparent, making us proud honorary great-grandparents.
Before we delve into this happy addition, we must first go back in time. In the waning months of 1999, a female elephant was poached for her ivory. She left behind a tiny daughter, no more than a month old. Without her mother’s milk and protection, the calf would have met an equally tragic end.
But fate intervened. A group of labourers working nearby heard the calf’s bellows and went to investigate. Finding a young calf standing near the body of a tuskless carcass, they quickly came to grips with the situation. They walked the orphan across the Mtito tributary, loaded her onto the back of an old Land Rover, and drove her across the crocodile-infested Athi River to the nearest airstrip, where she was flown to Nairobi.
That is how Yatta’s story began. After spending her infancy at the Nursery, she graduated to our Voi Reintegration Unit. In 2004, however, the time had come to establish a new Reintegration. We knew that its success would hinge on the inaugural herd, which would set the foundations for all the orphans who would follow in their footsteps. We selected four very special females to serve as the foundational herd: Mulika, Nasalot, Kinna, and Yatta.
With her deeply rooted maternal instincts and leadership acumen, Yatta naturally took the mantle of matriarch. Over the past two decades, she has become an invaluable and much-loved friend, tutor, and mother, successfully integrating with wild herds, forming strong bonds with the orphans, and raising her own family.
Yatta became a mother in January 2012, just two months after her friend Mulika gave birth to Ithumba’s first ‘grandbaby,’ Mwende. As has since become a tradition among our Ithumba ex-orphans, Yatta returned to the stockades within hours of giving birth, bursting with pride and eager to introduce her bundle of joy to the men who raised her. Interestingly, Mulika and Yatta’s girls are half-sisters, both sired by the same bull elephant who reigns over the northern sector of Tsavo East. He is a magnificent tusker we call ‘Dad,’ instantly recognisable because of his ivory that sweeps towards the ground.
We named her calf Yetu, which means ‘ours’ in Swahili. It turned out to be a fitting name, because Yatta invited us to be part of her daughter’s life from the very beginning. Although she is an entirely wild elephant, Yetu has always felt at home among the unconventional human-elephant family who raised her mother. In the following decade, Yatta has also brought two sons into the world: Yoyo, born 2017, and Yogi, born 2021.
Just like her mother, Yetu has always been an excellent big sister and nanny. Imagine our delight when we realised that she was soon to be a mother herself! Over the past year, her belly began to swell.
Yetu and her herd spent much of the dry season away from Ithumba. It had been more than three months since their last visit. Then, mid-morning on the 11th November, Head Keeper Benjamin saw a line of elephants approaching Ithumba. He immediately recognised Yetu in the lead — with a beautiful baby boy striding by her side! Yetu was flanked by her best friend and half-sister, Mwende, ex-orphan Mulika's firstborn. These girls have grown up together, and now they will raise this little baby together.
Although Yetu has only ever known a wild life, she has always embraced the human family who raised her mother. She was as excited as any ex-orphan to introduce her baby to Benjamin and the other Keepers, proudly parading him around Ithumba. A short while later, Yatta and the rest of her ex-orphan herd arrived, and the celebrations reached new heights. There was joyous trumpeting and ear flapping and running about as everyone greeted each other and fussed over the new baby.
We have named Yetu’s calf Yebo, which is an affirmation in the Zulu language. This baby is only here today because of a life saved more than 20 years ago. His grandmother paved the way for two generations of elephants — and in the coming decades, Yatta’s family tree will continue to branch out, creating entire dynasties in the process.