Mercurial weather is a fact of life in Kenya, but the floods of early 2018 sent the country into a watery crisis. Amidst all this turmoil, we received a startling call on the morning of 20th March: While on patrol, Mara Elephant Project scouts spotted a creature bobbing among the angry whitecaps of the Mara River.
Upon closer glance, they discovered it was a tiny baby elephant, no more than a week old. Braving the swirling water, they plucked the sodden creature to safety. As soon as we received the report, we scrambled a helicopter to complete the rescue. We called the calf Lemeki, in honour of the area near where she was found.
We will never know how far Lemeki’s river odyssey took her, but the mere fact that she survived the raging flood waters was a miracle. From experience, we were all too aware that she wasn’t out of danger yet: Newborn elephants are extremely fragile, and Lemeki’s prolonged time in water left her dangerously vulnerable to pneumonia. At the time, Nairobi was also experiencing terrible flooding. Given the precarious nature of her condition, we changed course and flew Lemeki directly to our Kaluku Field HQ in Tsavo, which was warm and, crucially, dry.
As the helicopter landed at Kaluku, everyone gathered around the airstrip, eager to meet the survivor of such an extreme ordeal. We have rescued hundreds of elephants over the years, but nothing could have prepared us for Lemeki. She emerged from the helicopter larger than life — a bit worse for wear, certainly, but brimming with personality. Everyone watched on, bemused, as this pint-sized elephant charged around excitedly and followed anyone who took her fancy.
Lemeki was the first neonate orphan to be raised at our Kaluku Field HQ, and we certainly had not anticipated her arrival. We immediately began constructing proper stables, and in the meantime, Lemeki took up residence in a ground-floor office that had been converted into a makeshift elephant bedroom. While we anticipated a fight to save her life, she thrived from the outset. In fact, she immediately appointed herself queen of Kaluku and reigned over it as if it was her private kingdom. While she hardly gave us a choice in the matter, the whole Kaluku team was delighted to be Lemeki’s subject and catered to her every whim.
Less than a month after we rescued Lemeki, Dame Daphne Sheldrick passed away. In the wake of this heartbreaking loss, Lemeki became the balm and light that put us all back together again — for everyone, but especially for Angela. During afternoon tea on the lawn, she would saunter over to Angela and flop into her lap, draping her trunk over her shoulder or blowing affectionately in her face. There was an extraordinary parallel, where Kaluku suddenly felt as Voi had been during Daphne’s first years raising orphaned elephants. From one end came new beginnings.
Lemeki, our eternal optimist, brought joy back into all our lives. Female elephants tend to be earnest, but she is just like Wendi: Boisterous, noisy, and a complete clown. She loves attention — in fact, she demands it. Should your focus fall elsewhere, she ramps up her antics until you cannot help but notice her.
Of course, it’s rare that Lemeki is not in the spotlight. She has one of those enchanting personalities that pulls all manner of creatures into her orbit. During her early days at Kaluku, she discovered Neville Sheldrick’s recently hatched vulturine guineafowl. He had put a great amount of effort into nurturing these chicks hoping they would live contentedly around his home, but Lemeki barrelled right in and claimed them as her own. Every day, she would trundle down to Neville’s house to hang out with her feathered friends and play in the Mtito Lugga. Improbably, the chicks were equally enamored with her. When Lemeki’s new stable was built close to the Kaluku headquarters, they relocated and came to roost on her roof. Neville lost his flock; to this day, she remains the ringleader of the guineafowl.
It’s only fitting that Lemeki came to us in a swirl of floodwaters. She is a torrent in elephant form, a one-of-a-kind creature whose outsized personality engulfs everyone and everything in her path. Today, she holds court at Kaluku, but soon enough, she will have all of Tsavo at her feet. This remarkable girl’s reign is just beginning.