Friday 31st May 2019 was the day Nursery orphans Malima, Mapia and Kuishi returned to their place of birth, Tsavo – making this a momentous day for all three of them.
With the cooler mild season upon us, and the land more green, the time had come for us to move some of our Nursery babies down to the Trust’s Reintegration Units in Tsavo, with those earmarked for this being the older orphans - beginning with the naughty ones! After spending time over the preceding weeks familiarising the elephants with the special lorry used for translocations, so as to help minimise any stress on the big day, loading proper took place at 3 o’clock in the morning, with lights hung from a tree to illuminate proceedings.
For this move we adopted a different approach, loading all three at the same time, as the previous day Kuishi had shown signs indicating that she was growing increasingly suspicious of events, clearly sensing that something was up. As it turned out this was an excellent approach for these three rascals who were loaded almost simultaneously and safely bolted inside their respective compartments before even being aware that anything was different to any other familiarisation day. Fortunately all of them have an obsession with the milk bottle which obscures all else, so they blindly followed the bottles and loading was all wrapped up in just ten minutes! This allowed for a very early start to the drive, which is helpful because travelling at night means there is no traffic to deal with in and around Nairobi, which can otherwise be gridlocked.
What was a little surprising were the number of vehicles on the Nairobi-Mombasa main road at this time of night, an unusual amount, which we can only think was due to the next day, June 1st, being Madaraka Day in Kenya, a public holiday. This did make proceedings slower than usual, but despite this our convoy steadily made good progress. For Robert (Carr-Hartley) and I (Angela Sheldrick) driving in a vehicle behind the truck that carried the three elephants inside, with their trusted Keepers by their sides, was a surreal sight, especially when one contemplated all that surrounded them on the roadside, the human mayhem, while they remained cocooned in their customised truck headed for home. Equally all the bustle around them continued oblivious of what was actually happening inside the lorry, three rescued and hand-raised elephants busying themselves feeding on their freshly cut greens as they travelled to begin the next stage in their reintegration!
It was Mapia and Malima who were the most unsettled during the journey, while the one we thought might present some problems, Kuishi, remained surprisingly calm and content for the whole trip! Thankfully there was no real drama throughout and it was not even necessary to stop along the way, as can sometimes be the case. A new tarmac road from Kibwezi town to Ikutha made this part of the journey, which in the past took one hour, just a short twenty minutes. At the Ikutha turn off there is a dirt stretch of some 20 km before finally reaching the Tsavo East National Park Northern Area Gate.
The Keepers at Ithumba were standing by expectantly, with freshly mixed milk bottles ready for their new babies arrival. Once the truck had pulled up at the Ithumba stockades and parked, the compartments doors were opened – designed to turn into gentle ramps – and the three babies downed their milk bottles while remaining in their respective compartments. This ensured they had a full feed before they were let out and became overly distracted by their new surroundings; only then were their respective metal gates opened up so that all three could exit together, clinging to their Nursery Keepers, wide eyed and curious! It wasn’t long before Sana Sana, Malkia and Ndiwa came running in for an enthusiastic welcome, after all they were all friends in the Nursery not so very long ago (these three having themselves graduated from the Nursery in December 2018), so our new arrivals were first reunited with familiar faces which definitely helped them. It was remarkable how quickly the three new arrivals settled, as in groups of three and four the dependent orphans filed in to meet the new babies and while they were all very excited it was definitely well managed by the Keepers to ensure no one became overwhelmed and without too much hysteria coming from the dependent orphans. They too have seen it all before and have learnt the ropes, so without any of the older independent orphans on hand, proceedings were orderly!
After they had subsequently taken their fill of water the three Nursery babies were absorbed into the middle of the dependent Ithumba herd and shepherded away to where there was good browse and they quickly busied themselves feeding while the Ithumba Keepers learnt to identify each of them and became familiar with each individual’s story. Kuishi, Malima and Mapia loved the taste of the abundant browse around them, still tinged green from the rains, and one could see them processing things, how strangely familiar it all was for them, because they had all been orphaned when old enough to have a very clear recollection of Tsavo, where they were born. They then slowly made their way in the direction of the mud bath feeding area, along the way the trunks of the others exploring them constantly.
For the 11am milk feed, close to the mud bath, the dependent orphans come in groups of three to where the milk bottles are positioned so that feeding takes place in an orderly fashion. It was coordinated so that the three new arrivals, Malima, Kuishi and Mapia came in the third group so that they had six orphans before them to guide them through the mud bath routine, able to direct them to where the water trough was and how to cope with the big wild bulls who were hovering around at the mud bath waterhole on this day.
The wild bulls presented an awe inspiring site with as many at 28 big boys in the area, just resting up and observing proceedings while a number of them enjoyed the mud bath, others sparred with each other high on the waterhole wall, and some even lay down on the bank while still more rested up in the shade. So our orphan arrivals on their first day were welcomed to the most incredible wild scene, which they took in their stride and did not appear at all surprised by any of it. The only thing that proved a challenge was the muddy side of the waterhole where they mistakenly decided to enter to dowse their bodies. Mapia became rather bogged down sinking in mud, but nothing that be couldn’t eventually negotiate. He savoured splashing the cool muddy water over himself and then extracted himself to walk around the mud bath with the others, walking past the big bulls who looked on with interest, before taking his fill of the fresh water from the trough that we keep topped up.
As the day progressed it was interesting to watch how Mapia and Malima calmed completely while Kuishi became the more unsettled of the three, choosing to hang close to her familiar Nairobi Keepers still in their green jackets, not venturing too far from their side. The other two were milling around like they knew exactly where they were, and to any bystander they would have appeared like old hands that had been here for a long time.
This trend continued later in the day when they entered their night stockades, where there was a little argy bargy, with some orphans having to be shifted along to make space for the new arrivals. This was met with some resistance, as elephants are such creatures of habit, and changing bedrooms always creates a fuss. Esampu and Ndiwa stayed with our new arrivals, in the group style stockades that we have in Ithumba, to ensure they had company for the night without being overly crowded. Their Nairobi Keepers were still on hand for love, comfort and reassurance which Kuishi looked for from time to time. Greedy Malima and Mapia couldn’t get enough of the browse in their stockades and just concentrated on devouring the tasty nutritious bark off their grewia branches.
At the waterhole and two water troughs near the stockades more big bulls hovered around with ex orphan Kilaguni clocking in for a visit to inspect proceedings. Later many more of our ex orphans filed in alongside Sunyei and her wild-born baby Siku. They were later joined by a female with her three calves, followed by a number of handsome wild bulls, so from their elevated vantage point in their stockades our three babies were able to look on in amazement at what unfolded before them, numerous wild elephants and independent orphans coming in to drink and then simply choosing to hang around in the comfort of this haven. It certainly was a good first day back home for Malima, Kuishi and Mapia,
It will be many years before these orphans will be independent of their Keepers, after all they are still babies, needing their milk, guidance, teaching and mentorship, before they are ready and in a position to become more independent - but they are now positioned in a beautiful place where their days can be filled with important interactions with the wild herds and the older now independent wild-living orphans that we call the ex orphans, and these lessons are what they need to grow up into physically and psychologically healthy elephants with a bright future. There is the chance too that Mapia and Malima may, in the fullness of time, meet their mums once more as these two drought victims, found collapsed and left for dead, have mums still alive somewhere in the Tsavo ecosystem.