On March 12th 2014, Angela Sheldrick was contacted by a distraught Joseph Sauni, the Voi Unit's Head Keeper, with news that Mbirikani had been snatched overnight by the Trust's Voi ex-orphans and wild herds, and that the Keepers had not managed to locate her by 11.00am the next morning. They had found the two bulls that she had last been sighted with but Mbirikani was no longer with them.
Mbirikani was rescued in July 2013 with a horrendous cable snare around her leg with a severe wound down to the bone. Her recovery has been slow but miraculous given her injury, but she had been rescued older due to the severity of her injuries, so must have a vivid memory of her wild elephant family, making her more susceptible than most of our orphans for heading off with older elephants. However, while her leg has healed she is still very vulnerable, unable to run, and she still walks with a limp. She loves her Keepers who nurtured her for months while her wounds healed, and has become extremely close too to the Voi orphans. She also loves her milk bottle. Angela was extremely concerned about Mbirikani and insisted that all efforts were made to locate her before she became prey to Tsavo's infamous lions. She requested that the Keepers were supported by the DSWT's pilot Nick Trent. A plan was made for Nick to be within the Voi area by 2.00pm but he had also been contacted by a KWS officer to offer aerial support over Tsavo West as Masai herdsmen had reported that they had seen some elephant carcasses.
As Nick flew toward Voi he formulated a plan for the search of Mbirikani, having been given a rough idea where she was last seen. As he approached the area where she was last seen he faced an immediate challenge as there were small family groups of elephants scattered for as far as the eye could see in the thick dense green bush north of Voi. After transects were flown it became apparent that a Keeper was needed in the back seat to help identify the lost Mbirikani. The Keepers are located from the air as they too have been out searching for the calf all day, and Nick lands on the road. He pick up Julius and they immediately take off again. By this point storms were brewing and the team had a sinking feeling that the chances of locating Mbirikani were becoming slimmer and slimmer by the minute.
With Julius in the back they revisited all the small herds in the area, circling them once at about 100 ft. Julius was confident about being able to recognise his elephants so the search continued for an hour, time slowly running out. The aircraft returned to where Nick started the search, where there were three scattered herds, checking one last time on each one. Suddenly they spot two huge lions skulking in the bush close to a small herd of elephants. As the plane circled in tightly the lions glared up at the pilot and Keeper on-board, getting a better look at the small herd being preyed by the lions Julius suddenly shouted out "go back around". They circle tightly once more to the right and come back over the herd which has three younger calves off to one side, not far from the two lions. This they did three or four times until Julius decided for sure that their orphan Mbirikani was one of them. Feeling relieved but still under pressure to get to Mbirikani in time, before she disappears or worse still the lions get to her, they called the ground crew in by radio and kept circling Mbirikani so they could guide the Keepers on the ground to the correct location, all the while mindful that the lions too have her in their sights. It took the ground team at least twenty minutes to fight through the thick bush to catch up with the orphan, who has now broken away from the group and is following a bull elephant. Eventually the team caught up with her, the keepers jumping out of the car following Mbirikani until they could slow her down and encourage her home to the stockades.
This was a very close call, and everyone involved in this mission had the memory of Shimba haunting them so they knew the very real risk Mbirikani was in. The team slowly walked Mbirikani back to the stockades, a journey that took a couple of hours. Nick Trent immediately collected the KWS officer, who was awaiting him in Voi and they headed across the northern slopes of the Taita Hills towards Kilimanjaro where a huge storm was by this time brewing, onwards to the next mission, although they were unable to sight any carcasses that day, but of course the search will continue.
Our Aerial Surveillance Unit is a vital tool ensuring the safety of our orphans and that of the Tsavo Conservation Area's threatened elephant populations. Please support this iniative however you can, donations can be made securely through our website https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/is/donate_now.asp