Everything about Ziwadi was soft, gentle, and unique. We often said that she was away with the fairies. Although she was an integral part of the Nursery herd, she existed in her own special dreamworld — and nothing nor no one could tempt her back down to earth. To our utter shock and heartbreak, our little fairy has taken flight and left us. We are still processing the events that unfolded yesterday.
Ziwadi has always been a fragile elephant. Her story began in April 2019, after a lone calf was reported on community land bordering the Mara. Desperate for company, she started shadowing herdboys and their livestock, then set her sights on passing vehicles. She cut a heart-wrenching figure, trying to make a connection with anything she thought might provide companionship and protection.
As it turned out, there was more to Ziwadi’s story than initially met the eye: When the KWS/SWT Mara Mobile Vet Unit caught up with her, they discovered that she had been struck by an arrow. She arrived at the Nursery in a fraught state. She collapsed regularly and was plagued by health issues, including a mysterious bout of temporary blindness. Most worryingly, she suffered from periodic seizures. We will never know if her neurological issues were congenital or the result of trauma she endured before her rescue.
Over time, Ziwadi’s seizures became less and less frequent. As she began to heal, physically and psychologically, we got to know the eccentric elephant within. She was simply enchanting, in every single way.
Ziwadi was full of little quirks. She developed a real passion for greens and would wag her tail enthusiastically as she feasted away. Always a bit off-kilter, she walked with a swagger that could be recognised from a mile away. She had an unusually long trunk but never quite got the hang of it. Sometimes, she would accidentally knock Keepers while waving it around, or trip over it mid-step.
As a herd-oriented species, elephants tend to stick together and follow the matriarch’s lead — but not Ziwadi! She resolutely charted her own path in life. She made a study of scouting the best greens in Nairobi National Park and famously knew all the best browsing spots. On too many occasions to count, Ziwadi would disappear from the group. The Keepers would find her shoulder-deep in a leafy bush, her tail wagging contentedly as she munched through the foliage.
Ziwadi always began and ended the day on her terms. In the morning, while the others rushed out into the forest together, she slowly made her rounds through the compound, sampling from each trough. We will always remember the morning that Naleku was in a hurry and went to everyone’s bedrooms, acting as a personal alarm clock. The other orphans hustled to their feet, but Ziwadi snoozed right through the commotion. Even when Naleku loitered outside in an attempt to wake her, she continued sleeping.
As much as she loved a lie-in, Ziwadi also appreciated an early night. Following the late afternoon mud bath, she would drift away from the herd and shuffle back to the compound. The Keepers made sure that her bedroom was stocked in advance, so she always came home to a bounty of greens, pellets, and sugarcane.
Most females have some matriarch aspirations, but not Ziwadi. While she was always kind and affectionate towards the younger orphans, she showed little interest in looking after them — probably because she knew that would impede her own flow! Despite this, she had a gravitational pull and the orphans adored her. The Keepers called her the ‘gentle auntie’ of the Nursery herd, because she was always surrounded by a band of admirers.
Ziwadi approached life at a much slower pace — and we duly followed suit. Long after her peers had moved into open-air stockades, she remained in her sheltered baby stable, surrounded by infants like Mzinga and Nyambeni. (In fact, she only moved into a ‘big girl’ bedroom this past May!) Unlike her age-mates, many of whom have already graduated, it was clear that Ziwadi would not be ready to leave the Nursery any time soon. We weren’t quite sure how her journey would unfold, but we weren’t about to rush it.
We have always taken things with Ziwadi day by day, but we had been really pleased by her recent progress. She hadn’t had a seizure in more than six months and certainly had more pep in her step. Lately, she had even been enjoying the mud bath, wallowing with gusto right alongside the others.
On the afternoon of 8th February, the Nursery herd gathered for their customary mud bath. As has become her new custom, Ziwadi joined in. She was splashing around and having lots of fun, when she suddenly started to have a seizure. Everything unfolded very quickly.
As soon as they saw Ziwadi’s distress, the Keepers leapt into the mud bath. They managed to pull her onto firm ground, but to their horror, she was not breathing. Although the Keepers tried their very best to revive her, it was too late. Our dear Ziwadi was gone.
Ziwadi’s death leaves us in tatters. She was a universally beloved girl, cherished by her herd here in Nairobi and her foster family around the world. Everyone lit up when she entered the scene, human and elephant alike. Such adoration could easily inflate one’s ego, yet Ziwadi didn’t even seem to notice. The word ‘grounded’ is a bit of a misnomer — she really was away with the fairies! — but she was such a humble, self-sufficient elephant.
We can take some comfort in the fact that Ziwadi’s life with us was a happy one. For nearly four years, she led a blissful existence at the Nursery. Her Keepers embraced her many quirks and never pressured her to conform. Even the other elephants seemed to recognise that Ziwadi was special and loved her all the more for it.
Although the afternoon turned into a nightmare, we also know that Ziwadi died while having fun. She was surrounded by friends, having a marvellous time. Her passing was very quick and we don’t believe she suffered.
Ziwadi’s name means ‘a gift’ in Swahili. She truly was a gift to all of us. Her time on earth was cut far too short, but we know she has been enveloped into the great beyond — the place where her soul always seemed to be, even during her time on earth. We will always remember and cherish this special little elephant.