It was another very early morning start on the 7th June, 2010, for the transfer this time of three more Nursery elephants to the Trust’s Ithumba Rehabilitation Centre in Northern Tsavo East National Park. Kilaguni, Chaimu and Sabachi, all now 2 years of age and healed both physically and mentally from the ordeal of being orphaned in early infancy were now ready to take the next step of their long journey back to the natural world where they belong, returned to their wild kin in a National Park sufficiently large enough to offer a grown elephant a quality of life.
Three large trucks parted at the Nursery Loading Bays always herald an important day in the lives of the Nursery elephants. It is, in fact, a celebration of life for three more infant elephant orphans who could otherwise not have survived. It is their graduation from the intensive care of fragile infancy having been healed in both body and mind, Kilaguni without a tail, which was eaten by the hyaenas who came to feast on the body of his dead mother, Chaimu with one partially blind eye, probably poked by a stick during the panic of losing her mother to poachers, and Sabachi with a trunk chewed by preditors, and the sinister connotations of being stuck in mud and abandoned by his elephant family . Although they will remain milk and Keeper dependent for many more years, it is now time to expose them to a natural wild situation so that the inborn genetic memory with which all elephants are endowed (which we humans term “instinct”) becomes honed by exposure, equipping the elephant to be able to lead a perfectly normal wild elephant life again with the passage of time.
For two weeks the IMAX film crew have been at the Nursery filming the Nursery elephants for a 3D IMAX film and further International Exposure and acclaim for Kenya. The main players of this important documentary will be baby “Sities”, who came into the Nursery on the very day that the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) voted in favour of the elephants in Dohar, along with Kilaguni, Sabachi and Chaimu, now ready to undertake the next phase of rehabilitation back into the wild system. The IMAX crew had moved from the Nursery and were already set up at the Ithumba Stockades on that important day, their enormous 2 ton Camera mounted on its swivel Crane, and the crew of some 23 people all ready and waiting to document the three arriving at Ithumba to a rapturous welcome for the older Ithumba Orphans.
Loading the elephants at this end began a 3 a.m. on the morning of the 7th and by 4 a.m. in the three trucks carrying their precious cargo rolled out of the Nursery, each elephant accompanied by two Keepers for the journey, with Robert Carr-Hartley, his father Roy and Daphne following in a Landrover. Kilaguni, being an extremely trusting and mellow little elephant presented no problem and merely walked into the truck to take his milk feed at each training session, but Chaimu and Sabachi didn’t even want to approach the trucks – not even for their milk. However, on the due morning, a little shot of Stressnil, and the expertise of professionals in this field in the persons of Roy Carr-Hartley and his son Robert, got the two recalcitrant elephants in without a problem.
The first half of the journey was smooth and uneventful down the main Mombasa tarred road until Kibwezi town where the trucks were re-fuelled before embarking on the grueling part of the journey on an appalling dirt road (which can barely even be termed a road). Slowly the convoy bumped and lurched over rutted wash-aways, erosion gulleys, broken culverts and dust 6 inches deep, until finally the convoy reached the Park Entrance Gate and the beauty of the natural world replaced the wall of impoverished humanity and their emaciated livestock. Once inside the Park Gate, the Landrover escort overtook the trucks carrying the elephants, in order to be at the other end when the elephants arrived and to warn the IMAX crew to prepare themselves.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, Yatta’s group of Ex Ithumba orphans now living wild and totally independent of their erstwhile human family were a long way from the Stockades but monitored by a Keeper who had followed their tracks as they left the Stockade compound the previous day. Kinna peeled off from Yatta’s group, and hurried back to the Stockades to join the Junior Keeper Dependent elephants led by Loijuk, who were attended by their Keepers as usual and were browsing not far from the Stockades.
Kinna and Loijuk’s group were eager to be at the compound for the arrival of the Nursery elephants, somehow aware that they were due, but how this event is always known by the orphans at the other end remains a mystery, especially as the three being moved this time had only shared a brief time with Meibai in the Nursery, and were strangers to all the others. However, the Keepers held them at bay, simply with verbal orders which the elephants fully comprehend.
First to walk out of the truck and onto the unloading ramp was Kilaguni, deliberately, so that he would provide a calming influence for the other two more “feisty” babies, Sabachi and Chaimu. Kilaguni took his milk and remained glued to a Keeper, while the next truck carrying Sabachi backed up against the ramp. Sabachi emerged in an anxious frame of mind, running around in confusion until he spotted Kilaguni at the Stockade water trough, and ran to join him before accepting his milk. Chaimu did the same, and when all three Nursery babies were more settled, and had cooled themselves by throwing water over their bodies, Head Keeper Benjamin radioed the Keepers with Loijuk’s Youngsters, which now included Kinna, to come and meet the new arrivals.
As always the greeting was exuberant, enthusiastic, warm and loving, all the established orphans crowding around the newcomers, which the three babies at first found a little overwhelming. The only elephant they vaguely knew amongst that group of much bigger elephants would have been Meibai, who shared only a short time with them in the Nairobi Nursery after coming in as an older emaciated 2009 drought or poaching victim. After the initial highly charged greeting, Kinna and Loijuk and all the Keeper dependent orphans escorted the three newcomers in their midst to the mudbath, where all cooled themselves. They were then taken by the Keepers out into the bush to browse, the three newcomers confronted with a wide variety of delicious elephant food plants not found in Nairobi.
That same afternoon, Yatta and all the ex orphans came to greet the newcomers, amongst whom was Yatta’s wild recruit, the young bull of about 14 we have named “Mgeni”(meaning “the visitor”), who is now more or less a permanent member of Yatta’s group who walks with the Keepers and even responds to their commands. It was an incredible sight to witness the outpouring of affection and concern by about 30 large now ostensibly “wild” elephants for three tiny miniatures in their midst and all attended by the human family who had reared them all and steered them into adulthood. Most incredible of all was the instant recognition of the Keepers by the ex orphans and the heartfelt greetings the Nairobi based Keepers who had accompanied the three babies received from elephants some of them had not seen for many years! It was not only the babies who were overwhelmed, but also the Nairobi Keepers who had known all the ex orphans in the Nursery, and who could not even begin the recognize their now grown erstwhile charges!
Soon it was time for the Keeper Dependent group, led by Loijuk, to go into their Stockades for the night. Kilaguni, Sabachi and Chaimu were put in one with Meibai and weak Sian, but Dame Daphne asked that Loijuk be with them, since she suspected that Meibai might be a little jealous, having been the smallest and as such having enjoyed the undivided attention and adoration of all the Ithumba elephants, Now, confronted by three even smaller, and having witnessed the enthusiasm with which they were greeted, sure enough Meibai was a little pushy, trying to mount onto Kilaguni, with Loijuk too kind to discipline him properly, so he was moved next door, in with Makena, Kora, and Zurura. Keeper Mischak remained with the Nursery newcomers for a long time to settle Kilaguni, who was crying a lot and who, according to Mischak, was missing his Nursery blanket! But Loijuk comforted him, as did weak and ailing Sian and soon all three newcomers were happily feasting on the greens provided for them.
Meanwhile, Yatta’s entire group of ex orphans remained in the yard, watching the new babies, and just wandering off to browse nearby. Early the next morning they were all back to envelop them all over again. Meanwhile, the IMAX crew, who captured the initial greetings on film, had moved their huge Camera and all the equipment to the mudbath venue, where a large pile of soft red earth had been provided for a fresh dustbath which elephants all enjoy after bathing.
The Keepers brought the three newcomers in first for their milk feed, and all soon began enjoying the dusbath. Loijuk’s group then joined them, and once those still milk dependent had taken their milk, all thoroughly enjoyed the dustbath, showers of brick red Tsavo earth tossed into the air and over bodies. Because the weather was overcast, the elephants were reluctant to go into the pool for a swim. Kilaguni, Sabachi and Chaimu would have liked to do so, but never having seen what was, in effect, a miniature lake, they were too scared to do so, so they too only threw water over themselves. Then Yatta’s ex orphans all came in one very large herd of large elephants, the wild recruit “Mgeni” amongst them. Once again the attention of all the big females was concentrated on the three latest arrivals with Chaimu and Sabachi now enjoying again being a small member of a big herd of bigger elephants. They basked in the attention, but Kilaguni still needed to be close to the Keepers and tried to remain so all the time. The whole herd thoroughly enjoyed the dusting session, the Imax camera meanwhile swiveling above and around them as they emerged through clouds of thrown red soil. Wild boy Mgeni planted himself in the middle of the earthpile, obviously enjoys the respect of all the younger bulls, none of whom dared “mess” with him. Buchuma and Ndomot took themselves to the opposite side of the pool and engaged each other in a play fight, sparring with each other, diving into and rattling the bushes before suddenly popping out again to try and get the opponent by surprise; sometimes lying down on the huge bank of sloping rock before jumping up and pushing each other all over again. They then went into the pool and enjoyed a swim after all the activity, where they were joined by one or two others and came out the colour of charcoal, for their red dusting session! All this was captured on film for the Big Screen, the only downside being that the weather could have been more cooperative. Most of the morning was overcast rather than sunny.
All the Ithumba orphans then meandered off into the bush, Kilaguni, Sabachi and Chaimu now very much part of the Ithumba Orphaned Family, warmly taken into the fold as part of the orphaned “family” instantly accepted by every one of the Ex Orphans and also by the wild friends they will be meeting in the coming days, weeks, months and years until they, too, take their rightful place back where they belong. They will be nurtured and cared for and loved in that special pure elephant way that epitomizes caring and love, beautiful to behold as well as being extremely enlightening and touching for us humans who have been privileged to share their elephant lives, and even more privileged to have been loved in that elephant way.