Published on the 14th of June, 2018
The end of May was a busy time for our Orphans' Project, Keepers and staff with much planning and many moving parts required to pull-off two elephant moves to our Voi Reintegration Unit in just three days.
Yesterday's move began with Godoma throwing us a curve ball under the cover of darkness when she suddenly ran away behind Maxwell’s stockade before finally deciding to follow her trusted men in green back onto the elephant-transporter lorry. The two boys accompanying her, Ngilai and Murit, were more eager to begin their early morning adventure and were no trouble to load at all. Our lorry rumbled out of Nairobi National Park gates at 3.00am under the cover of darkness with two Keepers in the back compartment to keep the babies calm, well-watered and fed for the duration of the journey. The convoy made excellent time and arrived in Voi before 9.00am, experiencing no glitches along the way and their precious cargo remained calm throughout, lulled by the motion of the moving truck.
Disembarking, however, proved rather more challenging as the truck got stuck in loose sand while manoeuvring to get the side lined up against the disembarkation ramp. Thankfully, with cool heads on hand, an improvised plan was coordinated by Robert (Carr-Hartley) to offload the orphans from the rear compartment where Murit had been travelling. Opening his heavy door and letting it rest on the ground made for quite a steep ramp but nothing that the babies could not manage. Murit led the way, carefully stepping down the ramp and out into many welcoming outstretched hands holding the all-important milk bottles. Next out was Godoma, led through Murit’s compartment and out of his door, finally followed by Ngilai. It was the clever design of our specially built elephant-transporter lorry that made this sort of improvisation possible, by opening different compartments.
With the newcomers safely off the truck, Kenia and company were allowed into the offloading area and rounded the corner with great enthusiasm to welcome the trio of new babies who were soon enveloped in loving trunks and flapping outstretched ears. Kenia and all of Voi’s older dependent females could hardly contain themselves at the sight of so many new little ones, but all this excitement proved rather more than Murit could handle as he ran in the opposite direction. He was calmed by his Nairobi Keepers and escorted back into the midst of the Voi herd where he was immediately comforted by the sight of Mbegu, Ndotto and Lasayen who were able to communicate the situation. Ngilai and Godoma were visibly relieved to catch up with their best pals and, together, this group was separated from the enthusiastic herd to have some quiet time and take their fill of Lucerne cubes and water.
They then headed off into the Park where there was much to take in; a land pulsating with life and so much new food, with different tastes and smells, including the scent of wild elephants which was everywhere. All six of the Nursery babies who now find themselves in Voi are still hovering close to their keepers, needing that comforting hand to suckle or just a gentle rub for reassurance as they get to grips with their new home, but the whole herd soon converged at the red mud bath, led by their Keepers, arriving just as some wild elephants moved away. Here they all had an incredibly exuberant mud bath, loving both the warm weather and the cooling mud saturated with red earth!
We have now completed the Voi moves for at least the next six months and, thankfully, everything ran smoothly and special friends have been united with a new life beginning for them, filled with opportunities of interaction with older and wiser elephants. It is this interaction that is so crucial to a successful future for our orphans who need the guidance of the dependent older females, some discipline from them along the way too, and to learn the ways of the wild from mature ex-orphans and their wild friends. Here at Voi, this process takes up to ten years, so there are many adventures and encounters to share before they take the ultimate plunge to becoming independent. In the meantime, however, we will give these newbies time to settle into their new surroundings and get to know new friends who have traveled a similar journey of lost loved ones and new beginnings.
Voi is our first and original Reintegration Unit, built by David Sheldrick back in the late 1940s when he was Warden of the Park and, over the years, has been home to many iconic elephant orphans. It is situated on the slopes of Msinga Hill with commanding views of the south of the Park with the Voi riverine forest snaking its way in the near foreground. Voi, and this area, has always been a haven for matriarchal herds of wild elephants favouring the open plains and abundant watering points. Over the years we have raised close on 100 elephants through this Reintegration Unit and now, with the latest arrivals counted in the mix, we have 26 keeper-dependent elephants based here presently.
Our Voi Reintegration Unit differs from our other unit based in the Tsavo area, Ithumba, in that the orphans tend to stay longer in the dependent fold, with the call of the wild coming later for them than for the orphans at Ithumba who get quickly lured into a more independent life. The reason for this is not completely clear, but it is likely that the lead is taken from those that have gone before and, given that staying closer to home for longer has always been the trend in Voi since the beginning, it has remained that way.
The current matriarch of the Voi dependent orphans is Kenia, who is committed to staying close and taking care of the younger dependent babies. She is very protective of her spectacular herd, now numbering 26, and has many loving and nurturing females to help her with this challenging task. She does not much like it when the wild living Ex Orphans visit and show an interest in her adopted family and has been known to exhibit serious avoidance tactics to ensure these encounters are only on her terms.
Among the Ex Orphans are several mature elephants who were hand-raised by Daphne in the 1980s and early 1990s and know exactly what these new arrivals are going through. Lissa, who was born in 1986 and now has six wild born babies of her own, is one of these older ex-orphans and it was no coincidence that she and her two youngest calves paid a visit at this time, on 22nd May, which was the day after Mbegu, Ndotto and Lasayen arrived at the dependent orphan herd. They met on the western side of Msinga Hill and the Keepers were able to document the interaction. Lissa has navigated a good number of decades in Tsavo living a wild life and the wisdom she shares with our dependent and Ex Orphans is invaluable since it is these encounters in the weeks, months and years ahead that will be so important in honing the younger orphans' wild instincts for the future.