The Rescue of Mayan

Published on the 25th of March, 2022

Mayan’s is a story we have waited some time to tell. He ranks as one of our miracle babies, if not the miracle baby. Saving him was a saga in every sense of the word, punctuated by great peaks and dire troughs. For much of his infancy, we faced a daily struggle to keep him alive.

It began on 5th December 2018, when KWS received a call from Manyani Prison. During their morning rounds, the guards had found an infant elephant calf at the bottom of the prison septic tank. His tiny body was completely submerged, with only his trunk poking above the sewage like a desperate snorkel. We can only imagine his family’s anguish with any attempts to extract him simply impossible, but this was an unfriendly environment for elephants, and they were ultimately forced to leave him behind.

Any chance to reunite him with his herd had evaporated, so KWS organised a rescue when they received the report from the Prison. Dr Poghon of our KWS/SWT Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit headed to the prison, as did our Burra Anti-Poaching Team. They retrieved their tiny charge and drove him to our elephant reintegration unit in Voi, where he was treated to a deep (and desperately needed) clean. In the meantime, our helicopter flew to Voi to collect the calf and bring him to our Kaluku Neonate Nursery: given his young age and extremely fragile state, we determined that in Kaluku would could offer him the best hope for survival. We named the calf Mayan.

Saving any infant elephant is a formidable challenge — but Mayan’s prolonged period in the septic tank added a whole other layer of complications. In 1993, we rescued Emily from the same situation and at a very similar age, and it took her nearly four months to recover. We prepared for a similar uphill battle to save Mayan’s life.

Despite his horrifying ordeal, at first it seemed like Mayan might waltz through. After he was treated with antibiotics to stave off infection Mayan initially fed well and put on weight. But then, the dreaded teething stage set in. This is a fraught time for any baby elephant, as four huge molars push through the gums. It leads to a dramatic loss in condition, and very often proves life-threatening.

Such was the case with Mayan. We tried everything, but he withered away before our eyes. Even after his molars had pushed through, he continued to deteriorate. For months, he was a shell of an elephant, teetering on the cusp of life and death. He suffered hypoglycemic dips on a near-daily basis and needed IV drips to revive him. However, his Keepers never faltered. Even when it seemed like all was lost, they remained forever optimistic.

By the third month of this, we knew we were on borrowed time. After so many drips, the veins in Mayan’s ears were starting to collapse. However, the drips were the very thing keeping him alive. But then, just when it seemed like all hope had evaporated, Mayan turned a corner. There was no eureka moment; what started as two days without a collapse turned into two weeks, and then two months.

Daphne Sheldrick used to say that you could predict if an orphan would survive by the fire in their eyes. For Mayan, this had an added dimension. You see, the first thing you notice about Mayan are his eyes. They are the most extraordinary golden colour, unlike any we have seen in an elephant. When his honey eyes came to life again, we knew we were going to win.

From that moment on, Mayan operated at full steam. He was immediately enveloped into Lemeki and Thamana’s gang — and was eager to make up for lost time! Once he had enough oomph to keep up with them, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the elephant fun and games. While Lemeki has a (largely deserved!) reputation for being self-absorbed, we must acknowledge how much she looked after little Mayan. She clearly realised that he needed extra care and always singled him out for special treatment.

And then, calamity struck a second time. To our horror, a stick went into Mayan’s eye, rendering him partially blind. His honey orb turned an ominous, milky white, and we wondered if that eye would ever see again. Again, it seemed like hope was lost, but we never gave up. Working in close consultation with an eye specialist, we religiously followed a treatment protocol. Week by week, the honey colour returned to his eye, and to our immense relief, his sight was restored.

As part of our Neonate Nursery’s christening crew, Mayan has had a very colourful upbringing. He is right at home among an eclectic assortment of orphaned creatures, from rhinos to giraffes to buffalos to all manner of antelope. However, Mayan’s absolute best friend is Vaarti. This little bull was rescued ten months after Mayan, and they have been inseparable ever since. They paddle around Kaluku in tandem, delighting everyone with their jolly antics.

Mayan’s health tribulations stunted his growth, and he remains quite small for his age. What he lacks in size, however, he makes up for in character. Simply put, Mayan is an optimist. Even in his worst health dips, his spirit never faltered — and that is why he is alive today. He faced a formidable battle to survive, and most young elephants would not have been up to the challenge. Within his diminutive body and cheerful demeanour hides a fierce spirit. Make no mistake: Mayan is a lionheart, through and through.

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