When we first received the report on 23rd March 2023, we thought there had to be some mistake: A lone adolescent elephant had been spotted 50 kilometres deep in community land.
Given that much of the Tsavo Conservation Area is unfenced, borders can be quite fluid, and it’s not uncommon for elephants to drift outside the park boundary. However, to find a young elephant so deep in community land was extraordinary. The fact that he was utterly alone further compounded the mystery. How did he end up so far from home? Why was he without his herd? It is common for adult bulls to travel alone, but he was about eight years old, an age when most males would still be with their family.
The poor chap was very, very lost. If he was to find his way back to Tsavo, he would need to navigate his way through 50 kilometres of farms and homesteads. His route would be fraught with danger: When elephants find themselves in the heart of community land, they often become embroiled in human-wildlife conflict.
Clearly, he needed an emergency exit. The KWS community warden put guards on him while we organised a rescue. This presented a significant challenge: He was too small for translocation equipment, which is how we bring troublesome bulls back to safety. However, he was also far too big to be carried in an aircraft, or even by Land Cruiser. It was time to get creative.
This was an all-hands-on-deck mission, spanning nearly all our conservation projects: Rangers from SWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Teams, the SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit, a pilot from our Aerial Unit, and Keepers from Ithumba all converged to save this young elephant. The SWT helicopter flew Dr Limo to the scene, where they guided the elephant to an open area and darted him from the air. A curious crowd had assembled, captivated by their unique visitor.
The elephant would be transported by canter truck, but getting him onboard was a challenge. Fully anaesthetised, his dead weight was too heavy to be lifted onto the truck bed. Instead, the team managed to hoist him onto a Land Cruiser, which sits lower to the ground and served as a glorified step. They then drove alongside the canter truck and eased him onboard.
We named the calf Motomo, after the area where he was rescued. Once an elephant reaches adolescence, they are difficult to age. However, we would guess that Motomo is eight years old, give or take a year. This was a unique age for an orphan: He was too old to be fully dependent on our care, yet too young to strike out on his own. We decided to bring him to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit. It made logistical sense, as it was the closest location by road, but also socially: Motomo would be welcome to remain in our care for as long as he wished. However, Ithumba is also a hub for ex-orphans and wild elephants, who would no doubt be eager to take him under their wing.
Motomo remained asleep for the drive to Ithumba. It was slow going on the bumpy park roads, but eventually our precious cargo arrived in his new home. Motomo was carried into a spacious, solo stockade, where he was revived. We cannot imagine his relief to wake up in a safe place, surrounded by elephants — he was transported from hell to heaven.
For several days, Motomo remained in his stockade while he regained strength. His appearance generated great interest among the orphans and ex-orphans. Once he was sufficiently acclimated and ready to join the herd, everyone jostled to introduce themselves. Motomo lapped up the attention, visibly delighted to be spoiled and loved.
As we predicted, it wasn’t long before Yatta’s ex-orphan herd adopted Motomo as their own. Given his age, he is no longer dependent on milk and is well-equipped to survive in the wild. Crucially, he is also in a protected habitat and in the company of friends. We are still treated to glimpses of our lucky little friend when the ex-orphans filter through. Motomo is a delightfully squat chap, always surrounded by a coterie of adoring elephants. He is a world away, quite literally, from the circumstances in which we found him.
No matter the challenges involved, we will never turn away an elephant in need. Motomo's story could have ended very differently. However, through the generosity of our global supporters, we were able to help him in his hour of need. Now, Motomo has his whole future ahead of him — and it won’t be a lonely one. He will walk through life supported by his new family, just as every elephant deserves.