Yesterday at dawn, we witnessed the miracle of life unfold just outside the Ithumba stockades.
All elephants celebrate a new baby with great fanfare, but our ex-orphans take it to the next level. Perhaps it is because they didn’t grow up in the wild, witnessing births within their natal herd. It has become a time-honoured tradition for ex-orphans to return ‘home’ to our stockades within days or even hours of giving birth, bursting with pride and eager to show off their new addition to the people who raised them.
Only once before have we actually witnessed one of our ex-orphans give birth. Days before Christmas 2014, Emily returned to Voi and delivered her second daughter just outside the stockades. Until now, however, Ithumba had not experienced the same miracle.
In the early morning hours of 29th October, wild elephants and ex-orphans began congregating outside Ithumba, as has become their habit during the dry season. Just after sunrise, Head Keeper Benjamin heard a great commotion, followed by a flurry of movement. Amidst all the elephants, something had fallen on the earth. Its arrival sent the wild bulls running for the hills, ears flapping and trumpets blaring in consternation. In fact, all the elephants seemed startled about whatever had landed in their midst. Even the older females, who are usually quite placid, made themselves scarce.
Before Benjamin could register what had happened, Melia, Loijuk, Kinna, Kitirua, Kalama, and Olare came running back over. He realised that the surprise delivery was a newborn elephant, still partially ensconced in a white placenta. With no preamble, Melia had given birth!
Over the past many months, we have seen Melia grow progressively rounder. However, she is a large elephant and hides her weight well, so it was impossible to predict when exactly she was due. She has been a mainstay at Ithumba these dry months, as have many of our ex-orphans. Melia visited the stockades the night prior, but nothing hinted that she would go into labour hours later.
In fact, Melia was as surprised as we were to find herself a mother! Initially, she seemed flummoxed by the tiny baby lying before her. That’s where her more experienced friends stepped in, helping the first-time mum come to grips with the situation. Loijuk, who is mother to three-year-old Lili, took charge and used her front legs to lift the baby to his feet. (It is interesting to note that the bulls couldn’t take their eyes off the scene yet kept their distance, completely bewildered by what had just unfolded!)
This seemed to jolt Melia into action. She embraced her baby with her trunk and guided him over to nurse. It took some practice, but she figured out that she needed to prop her front foot forward, lowering herself so he could reach her breast. As the day unfolded, Melia seemed to become increasingly comfortable with motherhood. She kept staring at her little baby — perhaps marvelling that she produced such a creature! — and caressing him with her trunk. We named him Milo, which means ‘beloved.’
Motherhood is all very new to Melia. Just like us, some elephants are innately more nurturing than others. Melia has never shown much interest in babies. As a dependent orphan at the Nursery and later at Ithumba, she showed no aspirations of becoming a mini matriarch. Even once she transitioned to the wild and her friends started having babies, she was never one of the girls jockeying to be a nanny.
However, having her own baby has surfaced Melia’s hidden maternal side. Although she still seems a bit overwhelmed by her new role, she is managing marvellously. Luckily, she is not embarking on this new chapter alone: Melia and Milo are constantly surrounded by a bevy of nannies, each of whom is there to offer moral and practical support. Kalama and Olare, who were rescued the same year as Melia, have been extremely helpful and attentive. Loijuk, Wendi, Kinna, and Nasalot, all of whom are mothers themselves, keep checking in to offer advice. Sities has left baby Mambo in the capable care of his mother and other nannies, and appointed herself Melia’s assistant. In classic Sities form, she is overzealous and body blocks most curious elephants from approaching.
Our baby-obsessed dependent girls were very excited about Milo’s arrival. Malkia, Mteto, and Maramoja were desperate to catch a glimpse of him when he was born, but his nannies swiftly blocked their advances. This morning, however, they had a breakthrough. Sities clearly felt pity on the girls and granted them access to Milo. They spent a blissful hour looking after the little one, positioning their bodies around him and self-importantly pushing away any young bulls who dared approach.
Melia’s story with us began in 2009, when she was found orphaned in Tsavo East. We cannot be sure if she lost her mother to poaching or if she is a victim of the dry season, but somehow, at just 11 months old, she found herself without a family. In the past 13 years, Melia has flourished, first in our care, then as a wild elephant, and now as a mother. We are incredibly proud of her for embarking on this new chapter with such care and competence.
Milo is the 53rd known calf born to an orphan we rescued, raised, and reintegrated back into the wild. All well, he has a good seven decades ahead of him. It is an extraordinary privilege that we were privy to his debut on earth.