Graduations are always poignant experiences, but especially for our mini matriarchs. These remarkable elephants, who have put so much into nurturing younger orphans, are still very much babies themselves.
Graduations give them the opportunity to learn from older friends and ultimately reclaim their place in the wild. And so, while Maisha was our beloved leader of the Nursery herd, we knew it was time for her to focus on her own personal growth — and that our Ithumba Reintegration Unit in Tsavo East would be a most fitting destination.
Maisha was rescued from Tsavo East in 2017, during a terrible drought that claimed the lives of hundreds of elephants. Rangers observed Maisha stagger towards a water hole and then collapse, where she lay lifeless and alone beneath the unforgiving sun. She was rescued and flown to our Nairobi Nursery, where she remained unresponsive for several hours before finally responding to the IV fluids we plied her lifeless form. Since that day we have watched with pride as a skeletal calf blossomed into a beautiful elephant and a wonderful leader.
Maisha’s graduation partner would be her dear friend, Nabulu, who was also ready to take her next step. We rescued Nabulu in 2019, after receiving reports of an orphaned calf in the Maasai Mara. Her progress had been monitored for two weeks, in the hopes that she would be absorbed back into her herd. Sadly, that was not to be, and Nabulu resorted to hiding in thickets for days at a time, desperately trying to avoid predators as her condition deteriorated. It took her quite a while to settle into the Nursery, as she had become so accustomed to fending for herself. In time, however, she emerged as Maisha’s very able second-in-command and the yin to her yang. While Maisha is good-natured and gentle to a fault, Nabulu has zero tolerance for nonsense. Together, they became pivotal figures at the Nursery.
It was an early departure on the morning of the 26th May, two days after Kiasa, Kiombo, and Maktao graduated to Umani Springs. During her practice sessions, Maisha had been refusing to enter the largest elephant compartment, which was at the back of the lorry. She is a big girl, so we worried that she would feel cramped in the other option. However, on the day of the move, much to our surprise Maisha strolled right into the back compartment without a bit of drama. Nabulu took slightly more coaxing, but a milk bottle did the trick, and soon their convoy was off to Ithumba.
There were a surprising number of vehicles on the road, but the convoy still made remarkably good time, entering the Northern Tsavo East gate around 7:00am. Because there are so many dependent orphans at Ithumba, we prefer to offload newcomers without the whole herd around, so they aren't overwhelmed by an overly enthusiastic barrage of elephants. After giving them the space to orient themselves in their new environment, we bring in small batches of orphans to say hello, beginning with old friends that would have overlapped their Nursery days.
And so, after giving Maisha and Nabulu some time to acclimate to the sights and sounds of Tsavo, we led Sattao, Musiara, Dololo, and Ambo over to meet them. They all clearly remembered each other, as evidenced by the frenzy of trumpeting and trunk hugging. We were particularly delighted to see Ambo and Musiara’s reaction, because we had already earmarked them as Maisha and Nabulu’s roommates in Class 1, the stockade reserved for our most junior orphans. We hoped they would show our junior girls the ropes and make them feel right at home, and their welcome confirmed our decision.
Maisha and Nabulu were surprisingly confident, sticking to their Nursery Keepers but certainly not clinging to them. 12-year-old Kilaguni was the only ex orphan present, and while it must have been shocking for the girls to see such a large elephant, they seemed completely unfazed. Little Esampu was the only orphan who was not overly warm to Maisha and Nabulu. She made several snide jabs in their direction, but the girls were totally unbothered. Maisha had some crossover with our mischief maker at the Nursery, so she probably knows not to pay her any heed. Malkia also showed great interest, wrapping her trunk around theirs and sticking close.
When it came time for the routine midday milk feed at the mud bath, Maisha and Nabulu arrived in the fifth group. This allowed them to follow the lead of the others and join an active mud bath afterwards. Both acted as if this was all totally routine, running in for their milk and then diving right into the water hole. After splashing in the shallows for a bit, they circled around and joined the whole group at the far side of the pool. It was a cool day, so many orphans opted to stay out of the water, but Maisha and Nabulu completely submerged themselves once again and had the best time slapping the water exuberantly. It was such a tangible example of how ready they were for this next step.
The girls betrayed their inexperience by exiting the mud bath in the most challenging spot, but they managed to clamber up the bank and amble off to the dust piles. The rest of the afternoon was spent happily browsing with friends new and old. They were tired but excited by day’s end, and enjoyed a peaceful night alongside Ambo and Musiara.
True to form, Nabulu has been self-assured and bold at Ithumba, introducing herself to everyone and defending herself against any shenanigans. She has already assumed a leadership role, leading the herd to the mud bath and back to the stockades, which is an enormous privilege. Maisha has taken a softer approach, but she too is making lots of friends and basking in all the special attention. After a year of caring for the Nursery babies, it must be lovely for these girls to be babied themselves. For Maisha in particular, this is a poignant move, as she has returned to the place of her birth. Because she was abandoned during the drought, her mother is still out there, and it is not unfathomable that they could reunite one day.