Of all the reasons that elephant calves are orphaned, one strikes a particular chord of claustrophobic dread. Ndara, Ndii, Mayan, Buchuma, and Taita are all survivors of this twist of fate. Now, Natibu joins their ranks.
Natibu’s rescue story began on 13th March 2023, when Wildlife Works received a troubling report from Maungu, a village in the Tsavo ecosystem. As dawn broke, community members reported a herd of elephants clustered around an uncovered manhole in the water pipeline. They had been there for quite some time and were becoming increasingly agitated. At the request of KWS, Wildlife Works went to investigate.
At first glance, it looked like an optical illusion: Peering into the manhole, you could make out the head of a tiny baby elephant. The rest of his body was squashed inside, invisible and impossibly claustrophobic. Communities access water via these manholes, which is why the cover had been removed in the first place.
Then came the not-insignificant task of extracting the calf. With scant inches to spare on either side, Wildlife Works managed to loop webbed straps around the little elephant’s belly. From there, ever so gingerly, the team hoisted him out of the hole and onto firm ground. This was no small feat, when you consider that a newborn elephant already weighs well over 100 kilograms at birth!
Over the years, we have reunited many infant elephants with their families. Wherever possible, that is the priority of all stakeholders. Sometimes, however, that is not an option — and such was the case with Natibu. He became stuck in the heart of community land, just metres from buildings and human habitation. When elephants are outside the national park, they are very wary, which is why they take water at night. Understanding the risks, they make themselves scarce when people start moving around.
Elephants will try their very best to rescue their own, but they must focus on the safety and survival of the herd. When it becomes clear that their efforts are futile, they are forced to make the heartbreaking decision to move on. This is true anywhere, but particularly in community land, where lingering can have dire consequences.
Hours elapsed between the first sighting of Natibu and his ultimate rescue, as the message passed from the community to relevant authorities to stakeholders working in the area. By the time the calf was extricated and our team was mobilised, more hours had elapsed. The decision to rescue any calf lies with the governing authority, the Kenya Wildlife Service, who first explore all viable options. Of course, the preferred option would have been to keep the wild family together. In Natibu's case, that was not possible.
While Wildlife Works kept an eye on their tiny charge, we organised a rescue. Because of the calf’s vulnerable age, we decided to bring him to our Kaluku Neonate Nursery. The SWT helicopter flew directly to Maungu with a Keeper onboard. Flying over the area, our pilot was not aware of any wild herds in the vicinity. Elephants can disperse quickly, particularly when they are ‘hostile’ territory and must focus on the safety of the herd.
The odds are stacked against orphans who were rescued from manholes, as they must contend with emotional trauma, physical injuries, and a myriad of internal issues from their time in the watery depths. In the health department, luck was on Natibu’s side. Despite the usual challenges that come with teething, he did remarkably well.
Other scars were more difficult to heal. Natibu was very slow to tame, clearly still traumatised by his ordeal. For a long time, he was claustrophobic inside his stable, as it must have reminded him of his time in the manhole. The Keepers patiently earned Natibu’s trust, showing him that he was loved and in safe hands.
One special friend paved the way for Natibu: Mayan. He became the little orphan’s ‘big brother,’ looking after him with devotion that would rival even the most dedicated mini matriarch. Natibu shadows Mayan quite literally from sunup to sundown. When he is let out of his stable in the morning, he makes a beeline for Mayan’s bedroom and patiently waits for him to emerge. From there, they walk through the day’s activities step in step. Mayan’s rescue story mirrors Natibu’s in many ways — he was found submerged in a latrine, with only his trunk poking above the water — which makes their bond all the more poignant.
Today, Natibu is a much-loved member of the Kaluku herd. He is a funny counterpart to Mwinzi, who is slightly older: Where Mwinzi is short and stout, Natibu is leggy and lanky. Where Mwinzi pushes his way into the spotlight, Natibu prefers to hang out on the fringes. Despite their differences, these little boys have become excellent friends.
We are delighted that Natibu survived his terrifying ordeal. Now, he has the opportunity to grow up and enjoy life as the gentle bull he was always destined to be.