In the process of helping the orphans transition from our care, we become acquainted with many of the wild elephants around our Reintegration Units. Some we know only from a distance, fleeting visitors who remain on the fringes. Others seem more in tune with our ways and visit us year after year. These are elephants who we don’t just recognise from a distance, but who we consider friends. Ndugu was one such elephant.
Ndugu was a majestic bull who called the Kibwezi Forest home. His name means “brother” in Swahili — and the Keepers dubbed him such, as he had become like a big brother to our Umani Springs herd. The friendship was not immediate. At first, he observed the group from a distance, nothing more than a hulking shadow in the dense undergrowth. As he grew more comfortable in their presence, he moved out into the open glades where they enjoyed the salt licks and mud baths. His appearances caused much excitement among our babies, and eventually they mustered up the courage to walk right up to him.
In the course of their daily adventures, our orphans encounter many wild elephants in the Kibwezi Forest. Many friendships have been forged from these interactions, but Ndugu has a special place in our hearts. He was truly a friend to all of us, with his comforting presence and his gentle demeanor. Ndugu never hassled the Keepers or gave them any cause for alarm; it was as if he understood the pivotal role they play in this unusual herd.
Ndugu was not a perennial visitor. As is typical of bulls, who act as the scouts of elephant society, he would remain in the forest for a few months at a time before journeying on. The Keepers and orphans were delighted whenever he made his regular pilgrimage back to Umani Springs, growing more friendly with each passing year. The feeling was clearly mutual: Ndugu would often accompany the herd back to their stockades and see them off for the night. It wasn’t unusual for him to then remain in the vicinity, sometimes even sleeping outside the compound. When four of our orphans started spending nights away from the stockades and out in the forest, Ndugu frequently served as their chaperone. We can’t imagine how reassuring it must have been for the orphans to have their older friend by their sides.
The Umani Springs herd enjoyed Ndugu’s company throughout April and into May, before he disappeared once more. After an absence of three weeks, our Keepers were shocked to find him standing by the mud bath, clearly in distress. Upon closer inspection, they realised he was suffering from a seriously infected injury. They immediately alerted the SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, and Dr. Poghon was able to walk right up to him to dart him with anaesthetic. It appeared that he had been wounded during a fight with another bull. His right ear bore a hole the diameter of a tusk, along with a deep puncture between his scapula and another injury on his left shoulder. After cleaning and massive doses of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories administered, he managed to get back to his feet, but Dr. Poghon gave him a guarded prognosis given how severe and infected his injuries were.
We continued to keep a close eye on our friend. He remained in the area, limping heavily between the forest and the glade. After dousing his wounds with mud, he would lie on the ground or give himself a gentle mud bath, which seemed to alleviate his pain. Ndugu was there when Luggard and Enkesha graduated to Umani Springs. He watched the proceedings closely, showing visible interest in the new arrivals, but it was clear he was not doing well and we could smell the sepsis setting in. Still, he remained a regal presence, standing like a statue in the mud bath and splashing water on his shoulders. Shukuru, who knows something of overcoming great physical difficulties, was clearly concerned about her friend and ventured up to his side to check on him.
She wasn’t the only one. Frustratingly and tragically, there was nothing more we could do for him at this early stage. M99, which is used to anaesthetise elephants, has a revival drug. While that remains in the bloodstream, anaesthetic can’t be used again for some time, as the revival then becomes ineffective and the elephant will never wake up. A minimum of two weeks must pass before we can even consider a follow-up treatment. As dawn broke the next day, Ndugu was still standing in the mud bath, and shortly thereafter he lay down. Hearts sinking, our team rushed to his side. It appeared he no longer had the strength to rise, so we mobilised vehicles to try to help him back on his feet. That was not to be, for just then, he took his last breath and passed away before their eyes.
Ndugu’s death affected everyone deeply. It is difficult to reconcile why such a magnificent friend should meet such a senseless end. We took him deep into the forest to his final resting place away from where the orphans frequent. It is a peaceful place, situated among the leafy trees that Ndugu loved so much.
We are glad that our orphans did not witness Ndugu’s passing. Many members of our Umani Springs herd lost their mothers before their very eyes, and we fear that seeing their friend’s lifeless form would have evoked traumatic memories. They may never know where his last safari took him or why he never returned, but they can imagine him spirited away, off on a grand adventure. Given how intuitive elephants are, however, it is likely that they realised how much he was suffering and, deep down, understand his fate.
Although we only knew Ndugu for a few years, he made an indelible impact. His life was cut short, but there is no doubt that it was a life well-lived. He was an elephant full of curiosity and empathy, an elephant who opened his heart to our unique Umani Springs herd and gave so much of himself to them.
Rest in peace, beautiful brother. You are and will always be deeply missed, but may your giant spirit watch over the beautiful Kibwezi Forest.