Malkia, Ndiwa and Sana Sana move to Ithumba

Published on the 24th of January, 2019

December 4th 2018 was a big day for Nursery orphan females Malkia, Ndiwa and Sana Sana who, in the very early hours, were loaded onto our customised elephant moving lorry after weeks of familiarization, to begin the next stage in their eventual journey back to the wild.

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The advance practice of entering the lorry is to ensure that the orphans remain comfortable and calm on the day of the move. As is customary, we gave them each a mild tranquiliser to take the edge off proceedings so that their journey to Tsavo would be as stress free as possible. In the lead-up to the big day, Malkia had proven the most reluctant to enter fully into her cubicle, always leaving a foot lingering outside so that she could make a hasty retreat if she wanted to. We anticipated that she would be the most troublesome to load on the day, in stark contrast with Sana Sana and Ndiwa who never hesitated on entering the lorry at every practice session, and were very obliging from day one.

However, our little elephant babies are always unpredictable and so it was on that Tuesday morning, with Malkia loaded first, walking in like a lamb without even a backward glance, and instead it was Ndiwa that decided to make things a little more difficult! Her reluctance was a result of sensing the occasion, now with everything appearing much more serious, and many more moving parts in place, so she immediately knew something was up.

Soon she settled into the situation however, and walked into her cubicle along with Sana Sana and the metal doors were hastily bolted behind them, ensuring each elephant was safely compartmentalised for the journey, with three trusted Keepers on hand, plenty of cut greens hanging in each cubicle, and an endless supply of mixed milk bottles placed in crates, ready to pacify the elephant babies along the way. As is so often the case, they were lulled into a calm state the moment the truck rolled out of the Nursery compound, completely trusting of their Keepers and their fate.

The vehicle convoy, with its precious cargo, departed from the Nursery compound at 3.30am and made its way out of the city environs down the Mombasa highway with a journey of around 250 km ahead of it. Just before they made their halfway stop, the sun was breaking through the bank of cloud on the horizon, and the lorry stopped to enable the Keepers to stretch their legs while cutting the favoured Grewia bushes to replenish the greens for the next stage of the journey. The leg from Kibwezi to Ithumba always used to be a dusty murram road, but recently it has been made into a tarmac road, so with road works now almost complete, this part of the journey was uncharacteristically painless, and both smooth and quick. The final sector remains a red earth road but the team made excellent time.

Still while things were cool, with light rain showers drifting in waves over the Ithumba Reintegration Unit - the destination for our trio - the lorry pulled up and the doors were opened. Freshly mixed milk was at the ready the moment the three girls exited. Sana Sana behaved as if it was a regular day, Ndiwa seemed relatively unperturbed and fixated on her bottle, but Malkia was definitely confused by her new surroundings and reluctant to feed on her milk because of it. However, their Keepers in their familiar green jackets - their trusted friends - were on hand which was comforting for them. Together the group walked to the water troughs, while the Ithumba Keepers in their beige dust coats familiarised themselves with their new arrivals.

By now it was time for the first group of Ithumba dependent orphans to be called in to meet them. Mundusi, Esampu and Mteto are well known to our new arrivals, having been the naughty trio whisked away from the Nursery earlier in the year because of their overly boisterous ways and corrupting behaviour at the Nursery, which is often a sign that the orphans are ready to move onto the next stage of their reintegration journey. There was a joyous and extremely vocal reunion as they all remembered each other. Sana Sana and Mundusi embraced for the longest time, which was beautiful to watch. Then slowly, three at a time, the other dependent babies, all 27 of them, made their way down to greet the three new girls.

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The gentle sun popping through the clouds made for cool temperatures, which certainly helped at a time when introductions were taking place, while Malkia, Ndiwa and Sana Sana were getting to grips with their new surroundings. The temperature began to rise as the herd moved further afield to browse, and the trio were certainly feeling it with their ears flapping furiously.

Thankfully, because of the recent showers of rain, there were small mud wallows everywhere and so the dependent orphans wasted no time in diving in, slapping the cool clay against their skin and behind their ears. At 11 o’clock, a regular feeding time for all of our dependent orphans whether at the Nursery or in Tsavo, our trio enjoyed their next milk bottles. Watching Malkia, Ndiwa, and Sana Sana, it was hard to believe that they had arrived only that morning, as they all appeared so settled, which is testament to the sophisticated communication of elephants.

The rest of the day was uneventful as the herd concentrated on browsing, before arriving under a pregnant sky adorned with a beautiful rainbow at the Ithumba Stockades around 5.30pm. Our three Nursery graduates obediently rushed in to their night stockades, a very different set up to what they have been previously used to in Nairobi, and heading straight to where the milk bottles were being offered through the fence, as if they had completed this same routine a hundred times before.

Due to the rain and plentiful vegetation, our ex-orphans were nowhere in sight on the occasion of this move, no doubt celebrating the green season, a joyous time for elephants who join up in large aggregations at this time of year. It was clear that Malkia, Ndiwa and Sana Sana were more than ready for this move, and while it is a graduation for sure, they will remain very much dependent on both their milk bottles and Keepers for many years to come. It is an important new phase, but still they have a long road ahead before they are ready to join the ex-orphans in leading a fully independent life in this remarkable protected wilderness that is the Northern Area of Tsavo, a Utopia for elephants.