Given the nature of our work we meet some extraordinary characters in the form of the various rescued orphans of different species that come into our care. Over the years they have been many in number, each so unique and all so special. They have brought with them huge amounts of joy and satisfaction, but there has also been a fair share of heartbreak, with an abject sense of failure too at times.
It takes great resilience and determination, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds to do this kind of work, because just when you least expect it, you can be confronted with terribly difficult news and the worst outcomes imaginable.
While we are best known for our work in raising elephant orphans, we have helped raise orphans of a multitude of different species over the years, but always with one thing firmly in mind, that we raise them to ultimately live a viable wild life again one day. We do not raise them as pets or to become exhibits for human curiosity, but instead we look to nurture them through their difficult milk-dependent years, until such time that they have honed their natural instincts and choose to transition from our care to a life in the wild.
For this to happen they need to be exposed to that wild life, of which they are a part, which stimulates their natural intrinsic instincts, and with our Nursery in the Nairobi National Park and our Reintegration Units within the Tsavo Conservation Area, we are perfectly positioned to be able to expose these animals to that wild experience they need, and our successes eventually assimilate into Kenya’s National Parks, to live wild and free.
That was the hope for Maarifa, a little beam of sunshine who arrived on our doorstep late one evening, rescued by KWS from Meru National Park after being stuck in the mud and later rejected by her mother. She was newborn on arrival and from the outset fell in love with her Keepers and her surroundings.
Her strength, energy and playful character quickly won hearts and before too long the Keepers were scrapping over who could be on Maarifa duty because it made for such entertaining days. She had a strong personality from the outset, knew her way around the Nursery compound in just days and, from that moment on she made the decisions; when and where to walk, who to play with, what to explore and who to follow! She attracted great interest from the plethora of other wild residents, from towering giraffes, to our orphaned elephants, who soon learnt that she was very much part of the establishment, and that this little rotund bullet that ran through their midst daily was a permanent fixture.
For blind rhino Maxwell he too was intrigued by the newcomer, and her with him, neither afraid of each other, just enjoying each other’s company through the gaps of his stockade gate. The huge and the tiny, although we were mindful that Maarifa would eventually grow bigger than Maxwell in the fullness of time, as white rhinos are ginormous animals. Maarifa’s presence even brought around investigating wild white rhinos, with a herd of four travelling up behind the Nursery to Maarifa’s haunt.
The warthogs and their offspring provided good playmates, with Maarifa happy to run with them, through and between them, and after them! Their mothers were always quick to rest up beside her when she took her naps and it was not an unusual sight to round the corner of a sunny glade in the park behind our Nursery and find a man in green perched on a rock with a tiny recumbent blanketed form sleeping soundly by his feet, with her head resting on his boots, surrounded by sunbathing lazy warthogs enjoying the rest. Such treasured times these were, so pure in their unblemished essence that will remain with us forever because they were the epitome of ‘perfect’.
Maarifa loved the men who cared for her and we would rotate her Keepers so that she did not get hooked on any one individual, because that is never helpful – but Maarifa loved all her friends in their green coats and was quite used to the visitors too, who were present during our midday mud bath visiting time, her arrival to the mud bath never failing to draw breaths of disbelief as the miniature version of a white rhino appeared - miniature in size but certainly not in personality.
Her mud bathing and dust baths throughout the day were very tactile affairs, and she would wiggle and squiggle and huff and puff savoring every minute of this sort of contact. She was also treated to coconut rubs, with the coconut oil applied so as to moisturize her skin. She would take regular naps while out in the glades in the forest or down on the plains, and would lie as close as she possibly could to the men she loved.
Keeping her safe from the Nairobi Park lions was a challenge because she was prone to bursts of exuberance, running around, darting this way or that, and with white rhinos they prefer to lead than to follow, and so it was that the Keepers on duty needed to be very alert at all times. So we had a special lion watch – any sign, any lion roar would be reported instantly to the Maarifa group so that they could bring her closer to home and be ever alert.
The Keepers too got steadily fitter, because keeping up with Maarifa was tricky, she had such a turn of speed – she was lax on breaking too, so her barreling down behind you at knee level was a good prompt to find another gear in order to keep ahead! It was entertaining to see how fit men were brought to their knees huffing and puffing keeping up with Maarifa’s games, but as the months passed so the fitness levels improved. Keeping up with baby elephants at play was a picnic in comparison to keeping up with a galloping Maarifa!
The night before Maarifa’s unexpected death she came bounding in as usual, whizzing around the corner to her stable, and she needed no guidance for she knew her beat backwards. She gulped down her milk and then crashed on the fresh hay with her Keeper’s bed elevated above her and his presence her greatest comfort. The all familiar sound of orphan elephant Maktao as her neighbor munching on his greens soon lulled her to sleep on the soft hay bed in the comfort of her cozy wooden stable, her home from the first day she came to us. That evening everything appeared as it should, a picture of blissful peace.
So it came as such a shock when early morning the next day Edwin, our Head Keeper, made the call to announce that there was a problem with Maarifa, the first alert in the Maarifa story since the day she arrived. We rallied around doing all we could but events just overtook us and she passed before our eyes, with us helpless to do anything about it. While the autopsy revealed what we already knew, what we still don’t really know is why she developed the colic conditions, and why it escalated as quickly as it did. We are left with no real answers at the end of the day, but instead just with the haunting memories of our bright little button who changed our lives forever, and that little voice in the back of one’s mind, why did it have to end this way.
I have written this piece to share more of Maarifa’s tale along with some incredible imagery we were able to collect over the months, as they speak louder than any written words possibly could. They speak of joy, friendship, trust, mischievousness, and her brimming personality, and the extraordinary bonds that were forged in the time she was with us, and just how happy those days were for Maarifa and us all.