On the 22nd December 2007, just as everyone was preparing the Christmas festivities, and gearing up for another election in Kenya, we were faced with yet another elephant tragedy, and one that has caused us all, both human and elephants a great deal of pain – the sudden death of our precious orphan Mweiga.
Mweiga was an elephant from the Mount Kenya population, who had obviously been born with a congenital heart defect. Possibly this was the reason why she was orphaned in the first place, as her mother and elephant family fled in disarray confronted by angry humans as they tried to move from the Mount Kenya forests into the Aberdare National Park, along an ancient traditional elephant migration corridor. She was left behind the herd, and very fortunately escaped death by being rescued by Wildlife officials. It was October l998, and we estimated her age to be approximately 7 months.
She appeared in reasonable shape, and was taken to the Voi Rehabilitation Unit to complete her milk dependent period, and enjoy the company of older elephants - the very best antidote for elephant psychological bereavement. She settled well, and Emily, who was then just five years old, plus some of the other orphaned youngsters remained with her near the elephant Stockades, and a cooling mudbath, because not only did she feel the heat of Tsavo having come from cooler clines, but it became apparent she was an unusual case. She was very lethargic and slow, and as she grew, this became more pronounced. But, she was happy, never ever left isolated from the others, always in the company of human Keepers that loved and cared for her at all times, and showered in the love of all the other elephants within the Voi Unit, who also understood that Mweiga was handicapped. Whenever she lagged behind the herd, there was always an elephant and human friend alongside her, the elephants taking it in turns to keep her company. During her younger years, two of her best friends were Mweya, the little Ugandan orphan and Sosian, from Sisan Ranch in Laikipia.
Nine years passed, and the Voi Elephants grew up, and all were ultimately sufficiently old enough to begin to live as perfectly normal wild elephants again. They had made wild friends amongst the wild herds, were healthy and independent of milk, and eager to venture further afield, no longer Keeper dependent. But, Mweiga was never fit enough to be able to be numbered amongst our 36 other success stories within the Voi Unit. She was far too fragile to walk long distances, keep up with the herd, or run from a lion. And so, she came back to the Stockades on a daily basis, yet she was never alone, always accompanied by one of the now “wild” orphans, who took turns to remain with her in the Stockades at night, and escort her out during the day, usually meeting up with all the others somewhere out in the bush. At other times, all the others, or sometimes just some of them, came back to escort her and her elephant companion out to forage first thing in the morning, returning with her to the Night Stockades in the evening, and leaving only when she and her elephant escort of the day were safely ensconced for the night. Latterly, her escorts have been two young bulls, who have been taking turn and turn about for “Mweiga-Sitting Duty”.
Throughout her life, well-wishers amongst her many foster-parents have provided generously for her medication and extra supplements to ensure that she is kept as healthy as possible. But, as she grew, so the volume of blood in her body which had to be pumped by her ailing heart, placed an increasing strain on that vital organ.
Then yesterday, the 22nd December, as she and Burra were walking the incline to return to the Night Stockades in the evening, with an almost full moon rising behind them, suddenly, and for no apparent reason, Mweiga collapsed. At first the Keepers thought she had tripped over some obstacle, but it very soon became apparent that something else was radically wrong. Burra was immediately extremely distressed, crying and rushing around, as the Keepers tried desperately to heave her back onto her feet, but within just a few minutes, our precious Mweiga had been taken from us. She died in the arms of her human family, because her ailing heart could cope no longer. We had lost her. Burra was extremely upset, and once he accepted the inevitable, he rushed back to join the other orphans who had remained behind at a waterhole, where all had enjoyed a swim.
This young female elephant who was in her l0th year, had been nurtured with all the care and love in the world, both from her human family, and her elephant friends. At all times, all the elephants, and all the Keepers, looked out for her. They answered her every call for help, and were at her side within minutes, as were the Keepers. At no time was she every left wanting for anything. Many Veterinarians assessed her condition over the years, and all agreed that she had a heart problem, and possibly arthritis and that there was nothing they could do for the heart. We could manage the arthritis, and we did, but an elephant’s ailing heart is another matter! But, Mweiga had l0 quality years of life and she died at a time in Tsavo when there was plenty of food due to recent rain, and where the waterholes were filled, so that she could bathe and wallow at will.
We always knew that Mweiga would never make old bones, but nevertheless when the day came it was a terrible shock for everybody.
Rest in Peace, precious Mweiga, your life taught us so much about elephant behavior, and you will be missed by not only your extended human family, but more so even by those orphan friends who never left your side throughout your short life.