Saving one life paves the way for so many others.
Ithumba stands out as a poignant reminder of this fact: From the four orphans who founded Ithumba in 2004, eleven new elephants and two generations have already come into being. This week, we met the latest addition to our ever-expanding family tree: Ithumba’s second great-grandbaby and Mwende’s first baby, Mala.
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. Last year, a special branch appeared on the family tree when Yatta, one of our Ithumba orphans, became a grandparent, making us honorary great-grandparents. This week, we became honorary great-grandparents for the second time at Ithumba.
This story actually began 23 years ago, back in the year 2000, when a tiny orphaned elephant was found alone in Meru National Park. Mulika, as we named her, arrived at the Nursery very traumatised and wild. We cannot confirm how she lost her mother, but we strongly suspect poaching.
Mulika was always a gentle and nurturing leader, first at the Nursery and then at our Voi Reintegration Unit. In 2004, when we were planning the establishment of our second Reintegration Unit, we thought long and hard about the inaugural herd, which would set the foundations for all the orphans who would follow in their footsteps. Mulika was an obvious choice, given her leadership aptitude. She moved to northern Tsavo East alongside three other strong females, Yatta, Kinna, and Nasalot.
Over the past two decades, Mulika has become an matriarch of Ithumba, and an indispensable and esteemed friend, tutor, and mother, successfully integrating with wild herds, forming strong bonds with the orphans, and raising her own family. While Yatta took the role of lead matriarch, she has stood by her side as an able and empathetic deputy, serving as a role model to dozens of orphans.
In November 2011, Mulika gave birth to Ithumba’s very first ‘grandbaby.’ As has since become a tradition among our Ithumba ex-orphans, she promptly circled back to her human-elephant family, overjoyed and insistent upon introducing her new baby to the men who raised her. We don’t often know who fathers our ex-orphans’ babies, but in this unique case, there is no mystery: We saw both Mulika and Yatta mate with the same magnificent tusker, who we now affectionately call ‘Dad.’
And thus began the next generation of our Ithumba family. Head Keeper Benjamin chose to name Mulika’s baby ‘Mwende,’ which means ‘the loved one’ in the local Kamba language. It was a most fitting name, for Mwende has always been loved by so many — her own family, the Keepers who raised her mother, and the orphans who queued to spend precious time with her.
Indeed, we ended up playing an unusually active role in Mwende’s infancy. When she was just six months old, Mulika brought her back to the stockade compound and took up residence there. The Keepers noticed that Mwende had lost condition and looked worryingly dull. Ithumba was very dry at the time, and Mulika’s milk supply was falling as she struggled to consume enough for both her and her little baby.
Clearly, the first-time mum needed a helping hand. We started giving Mulika generous supplemental feedings of lucerne and dairy cubes, in an effort to stimulate her lactation. The other ex-orphans seemed to realise that their friend was struggling and were very attentive, helping her look after little Mwende and embracing her with concerned trunks. Several days of supplemental feedings worked their magic, and soon all was right in Mulika and Mwende’s world. Mulika showed excellent judgement in coming back to us in her hour of need. In 2020, she gave birth to a second calf, a little boy named Mkuu.
We have known that the arrival of our second Ithumba ‘great-grandbaby’ was on the horizon. Last November, Yatta’s first daughter, Yetu, became a mother. At the time, we could tell that Mwende was also pregnant. These girls have gone through life together — Yetu was born just two months after Mwende, to the same father, and their mothers have remained best friends — so it feels very apt that they are now embarking on motherhood together.
As dusk fell on Sunday, 22nd October 2023, Mwende arrived at the Ithumba stockades with her one-day-old baby girl. Although she has only ever known a wild life, she still clearly wanted to present her newborn to the humans who make up her extended family. She was accompanied by nannies Makireti, an ex-orphan, and Gawa, who is Galana’s firstborn. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the ex-orphans and their offspring showed up. Ukame volunteered her services as a nanny, as did Wendi’s firstborn, Wiva. Everyone else fanned around Mwende and her daughter, absolutely delighted to have a new baby in their midst.
We have named Mwende’s daughter Mala. This little girl is only here today because of an orphan saved more than two decades ago. Her grandmother, Mulika, paved the way for two generations of elephants. We feel very privileged to be part of this ever-growing elephant dynasty, as it continues to flourish in the wilds of northern Tsavo East.