On the morning of the 4th of February 2019, a newborn elephant wandered into a village bordering the Chyulu Hills. Why a calf so young had been abandoned, remains a mystery. However, we must surmise that his herd was disturbed as they ventured onto community lands, and in the chaos, he was left behind. Given his sorry state, he must have traveled far: His tiny feet were covered in lacerations from the lava fields that jut out of the land surrounding the Chyulus. This precarious terrain presents a hazard for any creature, let alone one with such tender footpads as a newborn elephant. No elephant herds had been sighted in the vicinity, dashing any hopes of reuniting him with his mother.
As soon as our Kibwezi Forest-based teams and KWS received reports of the calf from the nearby community, we mobilised a rescue. In the meantime, the community he had wandered into was vigilantly protecting him. However, the arrival of a newborn elephant is enough to pique anyone’s interest, and crowds were gathering to catch a glimpse of the unusual sight. When our Umani Springs Keepers, Kenze De-Snaring Team, and KWS rangers arrived on the scene, they were met by a calf who was visibly overwhelmed and afraid. We named him Bondeni, after the area where he was found.
Our Kaluku Field HQ, which was just 20 minutes away by air and a location tailored for neonates, would be a perfect place for Bondeni to spend his infancy. While we organised a helicopter, the rescue team convened at our nearby Umani Springs Reintegration Unit so he could receive urgently needed care in a quiet environment. The Keepers there, who are used to caring for the increasingly burly Umani orphans all these years, were totally smitten by this little cherub. While it was tempting to raise him there, there was one crucial stumbling block: The older orphans like Sonje, Murera, Lima Lima, Quanza and Zongoloni would be so besotted that they would scoop him right up, making it difficult for the Keepers to provide the specialized care and regular milk feeds that are so vital for a fragile baby of Bondeni’s age. We experienced this many times in Voi, years ago ,which is why we don’t raise very tiny babies alongside our older orphans.
And so, we kept the Umani orphans a good distance away so as not to over complicate matters. Soon, one of our most experienced Keepers, Misheck, arrived with our pilot Andy in the SWT helicopter. Bondeni was carefully tucked into the back of the aircraft, with Misheck by his side for the duration of the short flight. He arrived at Kaluku with the full day ahead of him.
It was clear this little boy was bursting with personality. Bondeni was so young that he did not fully comprehend all that had unfolded in his short life, and embraced his new family at Kaluku without hesitation. He joined two slightly older females who were very enamoured to have such a tiny bull round out their trio. During the first day, Bondeni initially struggled to walk with his very sore feet, so we paid special attention to his wounds cleaning them and administering topical antibiotics. For the rest of the day he happily followed his new human-elephant family around the lawns of Kaluku and along the white beaches of the Athi River.
Under the expert care of Keepers Misheck and Kingoo, Bondeni grew up in a cosseted environment that is perfect for infant elephants. He also had the benefit of Angela and Robert’s undivided attention and the company of some other baby orphans. He has spent the past year and a half exploring the pocket of paradise that is Kaluku, playing on the river’s beaches and napping under the shade of acacia trees. Given the hot temperatures, it was not unusual for him to have two or three mud baths in a single day. He blossomed into a very playful boy who is constantly on the move, and he loves to charge any moving target! Like all baby elephants, he still needs plenty of sleep. At night, he and his girl friends would retire to their custom stables, which were built to mirror those at our Nairobi Nursery. Just like at the Nursery, each bunked up with a dedicated Keeper, who provided tailored care throughout the night.
Kaluku has been a perfect home for little Bondeni to spend his early years, but it has become clear that he would benefit enormously from the mentorship of older elephants. While his girl friends provide coddling in spades, he needs the company of slightly older bulls, who will teach him how to spar and all other things that little elephants love to do. On top of that, Tsavo is extremely dry at the moment, so finding ample greens to satisfy his growing appetite was becoming a challenge.
For these reasons, we decided to move Bondeni and his two special female friends to our Nairobi Nursery. Here, they could benefit from the company of the other orphans, forming special friendships that will carry them throughout their life, as they slowly make their way back to the wild over the coming years. As an added bonus, Nairobi has been blessed with ample rain this year. Food is plentiful, as evidenced by the Nursery babies, all of whom are fat as butter!
This time, our graduation procedure was reversed. As the clock struck midnight on 3rd September, we loaded the trio of babies onto the moving lorry. The drive to Nairobi took place overnight, so they would be in transit when temperatures are coolest. Bondeni and his friends munched on fresh greens and enjoyed milk bottles from the comfort of their individual compartments, soothed by their Keepers throughout the journey. The convoy made very good time, pulling into the Nursery at 4:00am.
We prepared three neighbouring stables for the new arrivals, which they placidly entered with their trusted Keepers, who have been by their sides from the very beginning. Nothing gets by our Nursery matriarch, Maisha, and she quietly watched proceedings unfold from her own stockade. We have no doubt that the elephant communication channels were abuzz with activity, as word got out that three new arrivals had appeared under cover of darkness.
Of the three, Bondeni was the most agitated when he realised he was no longer in Kaluku. He expressed his displeasure by doing headstands in his stable, but true to form, these angry acrobatics soon morphed into rolling games in the hay. That morning, Bondeni and his friends were slowly introduced to the rest of the Nursery herd. Unsurprisingly, it was love at first sight. The older females rushed around him, caressing him with their trunks and shadowing his every move. While they provide him with the affection that any young elephant needs, we know he will also thrive off the stimulating friendship of other young bulls like Roho, Naboishu, and Mukkoka. Misheck and his other Keepers from Kaluku have also relocated to the Nursery, and their comforting presence has gone a long way in helping Bondeni and the girls settle in.
From the jagged lava slopes of the community lands below the Chyulus, to the sandy riverbanks of Kaluku, to the red earth of Nairobi, Bondeni has already journeyed far for an elephant so young. Here at the Nursery, he will continue to find his footing and, when he is ready, he will continue his journey back to the wild at one of our Reintegration Units in Tsavo. Until that time, our spoiled little Bondeni will continue to flourish among the fellow orphans and Keepers who he already considers family.