For all the miracles Mother Nature presents us with, the wild world can also be a heartbreaking place. We felt this keenly over the past weekend, when tragedy struck Ithumba.
On the morning of 10th September, Makena introduced us to her newborn, a female we named Mumo. This was Makena’s first baby, but she had always shown great aptitude as a nanny — even during her Nursery days — so we were delighted that her own turn at motherhood had arrived. Despite the fact that she was born at the height of a particularly brutal drought, Mumo appeared to be a picture of health. She spent her first days on earth in lively spirits, even joining her mother and nannies for a mud bath before retiring to the shade to suckle.
Makena and Mumo shadowed by Ishanga remained in the environs of Ithumba for several days surrounded by Yatta’s herd of ex orphans to help provide the support system any new mother needs. Then, quite suddenly they ventured off into the wilds of Tsavo and did not return for three days. Ex orphans come and go, so their disappearance initially was not cause for concern, but when after the third day they had not returned for water Ithumba Head Keeper Benjamin began to worry.
On the third day, Makena, Ishanga, and Mumo reappeared at the mud bath in the early afternoon. The excursion had clearly taken its toll on Mumo, who was gaunt, sunburnt, and visibly exhausted with scratches all over her body. Where they had gone remains a mystery. Everyone present could tell something was amiss; even the visiting wild bulls seemed concerned, gently inspecting the baby with their trunks.
At one point, Mumo slipped into the water trough. It was incredible to see how adeptly Makena responded to the situation, deftly pulling her baby out with her trunk, before the Keepers could even respond. This is a manoeuver we have seen far more experienced mothers fail to accomplish.
Intervening in the affairs of our ex orphans is a very fine line, because if we overstep the mark, we run the risk of alienating them forever. While we were confused by events and concerned for Mumo on her arrival back, Makena was a fiercely protective and attentive mother. Our Ithumba team plied Mumo with three bottles of rehydration salts, which she drank eagerly in an effort to replenish her parched body, as Makena looked on. Approximately thirty minutes behind their arrival at the mud bath Yatta and her extended herd of ex orphans excitedly arrived amidst loud welcoming rumbles. The Keepers had brought lucerne to the site so that Makena and Ishanga could feast, mindful they needed to protect Makena's milk bar. Then, recognising that mother and baby needed uninterrupted rest, the Keepers began to shepherd Makena, Ishanga, and Mumo back towards the stockades.
At first they were cooperative but Ishanga then seemed to persuade Makena to delay. Finally they arrived at the stockades after dark, and the Keepers placed her and the baby into a stockade, to encourage her to rest while she feasted on tasty handouts. Unfortunately, Makena was not at all amenable to this plan, and promptly broke through the gate reuniting with Ishanga and Yatta before heading off into the dark with her baby by her side. We were pleased to see them at the stockades the next morning, with Mumo looking much perkier than she had the previous day. Feeling hopeful, the Keepers made another attempt to put the trio in a large stockade, where they could recuperate in peace. Once more, Makena balked at these accommodations and broke free.
As the sun rose over Ithumba the following morning, Makena again appeared at the stockades, with Mumo by their side. Later Makena wandered off, but did not reach very far before her baby fell to the ground. It took Makena quite some time to register the reality of the situation. She prodded Mumo with her trunk and feet, gently but desperately trying to rouse her daughter. Ishanga began to panic and started to copy Makena's efforts to revive Mumo. Noticing something was amiss Benjamin rushed to the scene. Makena allowed Benjamin to inspect Mumo, but it was clear that nothing more could be done, she lay lifeless in the dust. This came as a huge shock to the Keepers who were devastated by this unexpected turn of events.
Makena continued to stand vigil over her baby’s body, processing her loss with the courage and stoicism so emblematic of elephants. By this stage she was resting her foot on the calf ever so lightly with her head bowed, evidently communicating because just then loud rumbles could be heard all around as numerous bulls rushed to the scene surrounding and comforting the bereaved pair.
Our heart breaks for Makena, and for another life cut short during this brutal dry season. We have seen firsthand how difficult the past months have been for elephants, with water and food in such short supply. The situation is even more challenging for a newborn baby and a nursing mother. What is puzzling is at Ithumba we supplement them in these dry months, with plentiful food and water available. We will never know what induced Makena to venture off into the drought-stricken wilds of Tsavo, when she had everything she needed at Ithumba, nor do we know what actually happened. She clearly realised the error of her ways, but that realisation came too late, despite all our very best efforts. This wisdom, however hard-won, will serve Makena well when her chance at motherhood comes again. But for now, she is still grief-stricken over the loss of Mumo, as are all of us at the SWT.