Mayan and Vaarti Graduate to Ithumba

Published on the 29th of May, 2024

On 19th May 2024, two very special orphans — boys who have been best friends from day one — made the journey to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit, where they will continue their journey back to the wild. For one of them, this graduation was also a return home.

Mayan and Vaarti have been much-loved mainstays at our Kaluku Neonate Nursery. But now, at five and four years old, the time had come for them to broaden their horizons, make wild connections, and slowly but surely progress in their reintegration journeys.

This was a significant moment for Mayan and Vaarti — and for us, too! Both orphans have incredible histories and are real success stories for the Trust: Vaarti’s rescue stands out as one of our most extraordinary days to date, while Mayan’s saga reminds us to never, ever give up. Their survival was by no means certain, which makes us all the more proud to see what gentle, healthy, and happy bulls they have become.

The graduates and their farewell party

Several weeks ago we began familiarising the boys with the moving lorry that would transport them to Ithumba. Vaarti was a model student and followed all protocols from day one, while Mayan proved to be quite a truant. In fact, he flatly refused to step foot inside the truck! As moving day approached, we had no choice but to hope that his easy-going character prevailed on the morning of the move.

As has become tradition, a farewell party accompanied the graduates down to the airstrip, where the translocation truck was waiting. The team had been there long before dawn, ensuring that both compartments were filled with soft hay and fresh branches for the orphans to enjoy along the journey. Just before 7 a.m., Vaarti and Mayan’s Keepers escorted them out of their Kaluku stockades for the last time. Mwinzi and Natibu, who had taken part in the practice sessions, strode after their ‘big brothers' to see them off on their early morning adventure.

Ithumba, where Mayan and Vaarti will reclaim their place in the wild

In the end, Natibu played a pivotal role in the process. He has always been Mayan’s little shadow and this devotion continued right into the lorry. Vaarti went into his compartment without incident, and then we all collectively held our breath as Mayan approached. But we needn’t have worried: Natibu, competitive as always, shot ahead of his ‘big brother’ and showed himself into the compartment first. Mayan decided it mustn’t be so bad after all and followed suit without a backwards glance. (Meanwhile, we had to inform Natibu that it was not his time to graduate yet!)

While Mayan and Vaarti settled into their compartments and enjoyed bottles of milk, Natibu and Mwinzi returned to the stockade compound, where their own breakfast was waiting. [There is always a brief period of adjustment after graduations. The remaining orphans were bewildered by Mayan and Vaarti’s departure and certainly missed their big brothers. Within a few days, however, they settled down. In fact, they seem to be enjoying their newly elevated role of Kaluku seniors!]

Vaarti and Mayan greeting the original Kaluku Trio

The journey north was smooth and uneventful. Just before 11 a.m., the convoy pulled into Ithumba. The Keepers had gathered Kindani, Kinyei, and Bondeni (the original Kaluku Trio) to greet the graduates, along with amicable Esoit. A few minutes later, Olorien, Naleku, Suguroi, and Lodo joined the welcoming committee. Both boys were outgoing and inquisitive as they made their rounds.

The group proceeded as one to the mud bath. Mayan and Vaarti watched their seniors go into the water and soon followed suit, splashing around with all their new friends. There were about 30 ex-orphans at the mud bath. Interestingly, Mayan and Vaarti weren't fazed at all by the much larger elephants and introduced themselves without hesitation. Sana Sana, who recently went wild, was a little too attentive — perhaps wondering if she might recruit them to form her own wild herd.

Mayan sampling water from Kinyei and Kindani

After a full afternoon in the bush, the graduates returned to the stockades for their first night in Tsavo East. They are sharing a room with Esoit, who is always so kind and welcoming. Keeper Kingoo, who has been with Mayan and Vaarti since their very first days at Kaluku, will remain with them in Ithumba until they are fully settled.

It has now been more than a week since Mayan and Vaarti graduated, and we are happy to report that both orphans have embraced their new home. They are Tsavo elephants by birth — and Kaluku is not far as the crow flies — so this landscape must feel like familiar territory to them. The boys are learning all the routines of Ithumba life and have even become quite competitive in the evenings, racing home to get their milk first. They still stay close to their Kaluku Keeper, but they are starting to branch out and get more into the mix.

Vaarti following Mayan's lead

The other Ithumba orphans are delighted to have two new friends in the mix. Esoit, Roho, Bondeni, and Lodo challenge the boys to good-natured pushing matches at every opportunity. All the girls are very attentive, but no one is more so than Kuishi. She is like a clucking mother hen who now has three chicks in her basket: Esoit, Vaarti, and Mayan. Esoit, who is Kuishi’s original darling, watches their interactions with a beady eye, but has been remarkably generous in sharing her affections. In fact, Esoit has emerged as the boys’ best friend and their Ithumba guide.

The ex-orphans have also been very welcoming to the newcomers (with the exception of Wendi, but that was to be expected). Mayan and Vaarti have already had some thrilling encounters with wild elephants, which they actively seek out. We know this is the beginning of a beautiful new chapter for them both.

Mayan and Naleku hugging

As we contemplate Mayan and Vaarti’s futures, we cannot help but reflect upon their beginnings. Mayan was rescued from a septic tank in Manyani Prison. He came to us in a skeletal state, and for a full three months, it was a daily struggle to keep him alive. Day and night, he was sustained through a constant rotation of drips, until he miraculously turned a corner.

Vaarti, improbably enough, comes from Ithumba. After his mother died, he was delivered into our care by a wild elephant. She must have found him on his own and, knowing he needed help, escorted him to the Ithumba stockades. Vaarti’s story reminds us of the intelligence, intuition, and empathy of elephants.

Vaarti and Mayan celebrating Ithumba life

In the fullness of time, Vaarti and Mayan will stand among the iconic bulls who preside over this corner of the park. But reintegration is a gradual process: Over the coming months and years, they will gradually learn the ways of the wild, until they feel ready to reclaim their place among Tsavo’s elephants. It is only fitting that our miracle boys, who have been by each other’s sides every step of the way, embark upon this journey together.

Rescue to Reintegration

Each orphan we rescue is ultimately reintegrated back into the wild — a process that can take upwards of a decade. Find out how our pioneering Orphans' Project works.
Orphans' Project

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