We are all shell shocked by the seemingly never ending stream of orphans coming into the nursery these past couple of months. When we were called on the 16th September by the Senior Warden of Tsavo West National Park, Daniel Woodley, with news of yet another orphaned elephant, it was hard to believe, making this the busiest time in the history of the Trust, for never have we had so many orphans in the Nursery at any one time. Our Keepers were already on their knees dealing with the sleepless nights which become the norm when dealing with newly rescued orphans in the nursery, yet on hearing the news, three Keepers embarked on the one hour flight to Tsavo West's Kilaguni Airstrip with the same passion for their job as always.
In the meantime, the previous day, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's Mtito antipoaching team had been alerted to the plight of this young calf too, and had routed via Kilaguni Lodge where the orphan had been sighted regularly in the recent days, coming to the waterhole around 11 'clock noon daily. The lodge guests watched with concern as this young calf struggled alone in the vast wilderness that is Tsavo, and they wondered each day whether or not he would be sighted the next, given the ever present threat of predators. By the third day it had became plainly clear that this elephant was indeed an orphan, and loosing condition fast, desperate for company trying to follow even the Zebra herds. KWS (The Kenyan Wildlife Service) decided to rescue him before it was too late, but by the time our desnaring team arrived at Kilaguni Lodge, around 3.00pm, they were unable to locate the calf anywhere, despite searching the area thoroughly. He had obviously traveled a good distance within the Mzima springs basin. Kilaguni Lodge looks onto the Chyulu Mountain range, rounded peaks of porous volcanic ash, whose youngest cones were formed only 500 years ago rises 7,000 feet (2,000 meters) above the arid shrubby lands at her base. The hills trap up to three feet of rain each year from moisture-laden clouds and this then soaks into sponge-like ash until it hits bedrock and begins its underground journey to an oasis in Tsavo West's arid landscape called Mzima Springs. It was close to this area that the calf was finally located when the next morning our Mtito atipoaching teams continued with their search and located the calf at 12.00pm. With the leadership of their team leader Alex Macharia, the only man in the group to have captured an elephant calf before, they set about the daunting task of restraining a wild elephant of about 16 months old. They did a remarkable job, as the calf was heavy and strong, but they managed, although loading him into the back of their landrover pickup presented an even bigger challenge.
They remained with the calf in the back of their Landover, careful to make water available for him to drink as well as pouring it over him to cool him down on what was an extremely hot day, as they waited for the rescue plane at Kilaguni Airstrip. When the aircraft finally landed our Keepers went about preparing the rescued elephant for the flight, injected him with a mild tranquilizer to take the edge off the whole traumatic experience, and ensured he was given an antibiotic injection before loading him onto the Cessna Caravan.
On arrival at the Nairobi nursery, Mzima, as we called him, began to amaze us all. Once in his stockade, and back on his feet, he did not look to charge the Keepers but instead embraced them, coming close, savoring contact, and clearly loving the tasty greens that had been cut and placed in his stockades. He was unsure about the milk in a bottle and did little with that initially, but it was hard to believe that morning he had been a wild elephant such was his warmth. We concluded the tranquilizer effects must have still been with him.
The next day the same pattern continued, he relished having his head rubbed and learnt quickly to suckle the Keeper's fingers. He did have the calming influence of his next door neighbors, Shimba and Siria, that night, but he was remarkably docile for an elephant his age so recently rescued. Thankfully it was not too long before he was gulping his milk bottle down, almost swallowing the whole plastic bottle in an effort to suck out every last drop of the delicious liquid that he had gone without for so long.
A day later and he was out with the nursery herd, all 14 of them now. On his first noon visiting time, he climbed into the mud bath with the others, and was one of the first rushing to his milk bottle, in the rhythm of the nursery routine already. Having been without his herd and mother for so long he now relished the company of both human and fellow orphans.
It seems that Mzima's reaction was a delayed one, and despite settling down quickly and being extremely calm and loving, recently there is a sadness that has come over him. Obviously no longer tasked with just trying to survive, he is now able to contemplate the enormity of his loss. This, sadly, only time will heal.