The 31st of May was a big day for us, as it was the date we had earmarked to move our 'Lionheart' Luggard and his friend, Enkesha, from the Nursery to our Umani Springs Reintegration Unit. Graduations are always auspicious events, but it was particularly momentous for this pair of survivors.
Luggard was four months old when he was caught in a hail of gunfire. Bullets pierced through his left foot and shattered his right knee, rendering him almost immobile. Enkesha was just a baby herself when she became entangled in a wire snare, which wrapped so tightly around her trunk that it nearly severed it entirely. Although both have recovered remarkably well in the intervening years, Luggard still walks with a significant limp, so we had to plan his next step very carefully.
We have raised similarly compromised orphans, such as Murera, whose injury is much like Luggard’s. In fact, we created our Umani Springs Reintegration Unit with Murera in mind. Elephants with lifelong injuries simply can’t walk the hundreds of miles required to search for food in Tsavo’s dry season. Instead, they need to live in a forgiving environment, one where water and browse is abundant throughout the year. That is why we chose Umani Springs, a pocket of paradise within the lush Kibwezi Forest, which forms part of the Chyulu Hills National Park. In 2008 the Sheldrick Trust finalised a concession agreement with the Kenya Forest Service to manage Kibwezi Forest. Today it is protected extensively by our field and aerial teams, and is home to all manner of species including a thriving wild elephant population, and is an ideal haven for any orphan with disabilities. So, as Luggard and Enkesha were showing signs that they were ready to move on from the Nursery, we knew that Umani Springs would be a perfect next step.
Everyone approached the big day with equal parts excitement and apprehension. Luggard has been such an integral part of the Nursery for so long, and he will be sorely missed by the Nairobi crew, who stood by this brave little warrior’s side for years. We knew that Enkesha, with her fiercely independent streak, would be the perfect steadying influence for Luggard in their new home. So, in the early hours of Sunday 31st May, we loaded the graduates onto the elephant moving lorry. Many orphans are anxious about this step, but Luggard and Enkesha implicitly trust the men who helped them heal, and followed them onto the truck without incident. Luggard showed some signs of unease as the convoy pulled out of the Nursery, but he took comfort from Enkesha and fed off her steady calm and settled. Throughout the journey, their Keepers were on hand, walking up and down the aisle ensuring they were fed, watered and reassured.
By 6.30 am, just as the soft glow of morning was peeking through the trees, the convoy passed through the gates to the Kibwezi Forest. The team at Umani Springs were ready and waiting, excited to welcome the new babies, given how all their current charges are quickly growing up! The orphan herd was waiting nearby, clearly aware that something was up. The truck wasn’t even stationary before Lima Lima was by its side, such was her eagerness to meet the precious cargo within. Enkesha shot out confidently, while Luggard followed wide-eyed and worried. His bewilderment was short-lived, as he immediately found himself enveloped by his new family. Joyous rumbles echoed throughout the forest as the Umani Springs girls jostled around the newcomers.
Luggard responded immediately to Murera and Sonje, who tower over him, but provide such a comforting presence that our little boy craves. Enkesha, in typical form, was perfectly content to do her own thing and tucked right into the abundant vegetation, while Lima Lima, Zongoloni, and Quanza shadowed her every move. Many members of the Umani Springs herd have their own injuries to contend with, and they were respectfully curious about the newcomers’ scars, touching Luggard's knee ever so gently and sniffing at Enkesha’s trunk.
Watching all of this unfold was a deeply moving experience. From the moment they set foot in their new home, Enkesha and Luggard experienced nothing but love and compassion. The whole herd — including the bulls — formed a slow procession around the babies, as none of them had any desire to be anywhere else! After experiencing their Umani “firsts,” from the mud bath to the milk feed, the pair took some quiet time in the shade of a giant acacia tortillas tree while Murera and Sonje formed a protective circle around them. At 5 pm, Peter - one of their Keepers from the Nursery who travelled with them - led Luggard, Enkesha, and the rest of the Umani Springs herd back to the stockades.
As it transpired, everyone was too excited to go to sleep that night. The older orphans convened around Luggard and Enkesha’s stockade, and it took quite a bit of coaxing to get them into their own rooms. Murera kicked up such a fuss that we eventually let her into Enkesha and Luggard’s stockade for a sleepover, and this calmed her, but later she was overeager in her nannying duties and woke her little charges every time they tried to lie down! In the end, the Keepers moved her back into her own stockade so the babies could enjoy a good night’s rest underneath the brilliant starry sky.
Our Umani Springs herd is remarkable for so many reasons. They remind us of the trauma that our kind inflicts on the wild world, but they are also a symbol of hope. These elephants have not only survived seemingly insurmountable odds — mostly at the hands of humans — but also found it in their hearts to forgive and find happiness once more. There is Murera, who trod on poisoned spikes; Sonje, with a bullet still lodged in her calcified knee; Mwashoti, who nearly lost his foot in a snare; Zongoloni and Quanza, who saw their mothers gunned down by poachers. Now, Enkesha and Luggard, two elephants who have also triumphed over the most tragic circumstances, join their midst. Here in Umani Springs, they will continue to heal and, in time, they will reclaim what was very nearly stolen from them: a wild future, living in a protected paradise.