How time flies! Can it really be 16 months ago, way back in January 2001, that Mweya arrived at our Nairobi Elephant Nursery by Helicopter from Uganda, a tiny infant elephant of just a month old? And 15 months ago that Sweet Sally came at 6 months old, having become separated from her mother during the translocation of elephants from Sweet Waters Ranch in Nanyuki to Meru National Park? Amazingly it is, and now two more of our elephant babies have successfully outgrown the Nursery. This is, of course, cause for celebration but for us it is always an event tinged with sadness, because during the intensive care of their Nursery year, we inevitably come to know and love them well. We shall miss them. Mweya, now 17 months old, and Sweet Sally now 21 months old were moved to join the older orphans in Tsavo on Thursday 23rd May, 2002, bringing the total in Emily's "herd" to 21, excluding herself and Aitong, her Nanny, and their Satellite, faithful Imenti.
May is always the best time to move Nursery inmates down to Tsavo, because the cool season begins in June and lasts through until August/September, which gives the babies time to acclimatise to the much hotter temperatures and arid climate of Tsavo. The rains of March/April also mean that it is green, and as the vegetation gradually becomes dry and parched, the newcomers have time to take some lessons in trunk management from the older elephants, in order to cope with a totally habitat. But, for us in Nairobi, no elephant departs the Nursery without a tear or two being shed as the lorry drives away, and those of us who remember leaving our children at Boarding Schools relive that sinking feeling. Amongst the so-called professionals, emotion when it comes to animals is an unpopular concept, but we view this not as a flaw, but as a necessity and the cornerstone of our success. Pride? Yes, we have that too with each one that leaves the Nursery in good health, for we remember too well how they were when they first came in, psychologically and physically damaged, and we are proud of having been able to heal both mind and body and in the fullness of time safely return them back to Nature where they rightly belong. No less than 40 elephants that would otherwise definitely have perished have so far passed through our hands, and that, after all, is a herd and something to be proud of.
Training for the 200 mile journey to Tsavo East National Park always begins about four days prior to the date set for the departure, when Roy Carr-Hartley's huge green Safari Truck is positioned level with a bank that acts as our loading ramp. Straw and earth is laid down on the back door lying level with the higher ground, and for several days beforehand the babies are fed actually in the truck first thing in the morning having left their Nursery Night Stables, and in the evening when they return. Many are at first reluctant, sensing slight movement as they step into the truck and also perhaps a sense of claustrophobia. But the trust they have for their Keepers usually overcomes any reluctance after just one or two practice sessions, and in this respect Mweya and Sweet Sally came through with flying colours, simply marching straight in after their bottles of milk.
Roy Carr-Hartley himself always drives our elephants down to Tsavo, their Keepers seated in a small compartment just behind the cab, so that the elephants have access to them throughout the journey. A back-up vehicle follows and behind that usually a veritable convoy of eager hangers on, all anxious to witness the introduction of new babies to the older elephants at the other end. There is usually just one pause en route, to cool the elephants down by splashing water over them, adjusting the tarpaulin cover to allow in a little more breeze, and to give them a mid morning milk feed. Treats in the back of the truck are aplenty in the form of cut natural browse to provide a diversion during a journey which will last about 6 - 7 hours.
By noon, they are usually at the other end, stepping out of the truck at the loading ramp at the Tsavo Night Stockades. Once there, they are allowed a short time to investigate their new surroundings filled with the pungent smell of concentrated "elephant" before the older elephants arrive in a rush, always eager to welcome newcomers. They usually come in two batches, the younger set known as Natumi's group coming first with the younger yet elephants of Yatta's group. Included in this group, of course, are Mulika and Nasalot, fairly recent arrivals in Tsavo, who shared the Nursery with Mweya and Sweet Sally and will be there to comfort and reassure them in the following days. However, on this particular day, they were not amongst the front-runners of the group but at the back of the cavalcade, so it took a little while for Mweya and Sally to realise that they were there.
The introduction into the older set is always somewhat traumatic for Nursery elephants, and particularly for those such as Mweya who was orphaned too young to remember her mother or the family clearly. To suddenly find oneself surrounded by a herd of strange giants all eager to smother, touch and caress is an overwhelming experience, and Mweya was clearly terrified, bent only on escape. Sweet Sally, on the other hand, was much calmer, but then she was 6 months old when she became an orphan, and as such was familiar with adult elephants. Bellowing loudly and dashing around in an attempt to escape, all Mweya wanted was "out", something that became even more pressing when even bigger giants arrived in a rush, namely Emily herself, with Aitong, Imenti and the senior set, all jostling and shoving in order to get close to two new precious tiny strangers. But all the elephants are always thrilled to welcome others into their midst even though it takes an hour or two for the newcomers to understand this and realise that they are amongst friends.
The initial chaos surrounding the introduction of Mweya and Sweet Sally soon settled down, and in no time at all they were part of the group, foraging along with all the others peacefully along the slopes of Mazinga hill, albeit keeping close by their Keepers. Mulika and Nasalot joined them, quite obviously delighted again to be reunited with the elephants they "mothered" in the Nursery only a few months previously.
Nevertheless, the first night in a large Stockade with a host of others, outside the comfort of the Nursery stable and a soft mattress to lie on is yet another "cold turkey" for newcomers. Mweya (always something of a spoilt brat, used to getting her own way) objected vociferously, even though she had the luxury of a Keeper actually in the Stockade that housed her and Sally. She bellowed loudly for several hours, and this brought Imenti the Protector back down the hill to take a closer look and reassure himself that nothing was too remiss. (Imenti is not enclosed in the Night Stockades, free to go wherever he wishes, but is usually waiting at the entrance in the morning to join the others.) Emily was also somewhat unphased by Mweya's crying, but since both she and Aitong were already enclosed for the night, there was not much she could do about it. Finally, understanding that her protests were falling on deaf ears, Mweya settled down and peace was restored.
What happened the next morning, and on subsequent days is not yet known, because the return convoy left early for Nairobi and there is no phone contact at the Stockades. No news is always good news, and all will be revealed in this month's Keepers' Diary, which will be posted on the web early in June. We have no doubt, knowing Mweya and Sweet Sally as we do, that they are now having a wonderful time.
Back in the Nursery, it was Thoma who missed Mweya and Sweet Sally most. She searched the bushes and their stables for them, and cried a lot for a day or two, but she has now accepted their absence, and has formed a closer bond with little Seraa. Meanwhile the two boys, Solango and Burra, sufficient unto themselves as bull elephants are, seem hardly to have noticed any change!