On Friday 13th January, the Amboseli Research Team became aware that “Soila”, the elephant, so named after Cynthia Moss’s Assistant, Soila, was missing from Amboseli’s famous “SA” elephant family – a unit that spends a lot of time in Tanzania, crossing over the border from Amboseli near Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. Once away from the sanctity of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, the Amboseli elephants are particularly vulnerable, for they have always known humans as friends. The plight of elephant mother “Soila” will probably always remain a mystery, but some tragedy has obviously overtaken her, to render her baby, named “Sian” , suddenly an orphan. Although she was still with the family, sticking closely to an Aunt, that Aunt could not provide what she had to have to sustain life at only 9 months of age - milk. (No elephant calf orphaned under the age of 2 years can survive without milk, irrespective of the fact that they are beginning to eat vegetation. This is a proven fact, known after 30 years of Scientific study by the Amboseli Researchers, whose Elephant Monitoring Programme has taught the world most of what we know about the social fabric of elephant family life.)
The Trust’s Mobile Veterinary Unit based in Tsavo, was immediately alerted, and they immediately set out for Amboseli, hoping to be able to separate the orphan from her elephant family, before she became too weakened to become vulnerable to pneumonia, and death through milk deprivation. Despite a two day search, however, they were unable to locate the calf, and since it was presumed that she and her family had returned to Tanzania, the Mobile Veterinary Unit gave up and returned to attend to other needy cases back in Tsavo, (rescuing another Ziwani elephant orphan on the way, who, sadly did not make it – little Nkiito, who died in the Nursery of pneumonia two days later.)
On Tuesday 17th, just as we were struggling to save the life of Nkiito and another orphan from Laikipia, named Loijuk, human Soila was in touch again to tell us that they had managed to locate the calf who was still without her mother. Human Soila has a particular affinity for elephant Soila’s baby, not only because elephant mother “Soila” was named after her 23 years ago when she first opened her eyes, but because the life of her baby had also been closely followed from the moment it first drew breath in April 2005.
Cynthia Moss opted to maintain vigil near the orphaned calf to ensure that it could be found when the Rescue Plane arrived. Soon the Rescue Plane was winging its way to Amboseli airstrip, loaded with all the rescue paraphanalia, a KWS Veterinarian, 2 Trust Elephant Keepers, and the Trust’s Head Wrangler, Robert Carr-Hartley. Having landed, they were then driven to where Cynthia and Calf now happened to be and were somewhat taken aback to find that the baby had joined up with four enormous Bulls, and was at the edge of a Swamp. The huge bulls dwarfed the tiny orphan, and would obviously have to be moved off before a rescue could take place. This posed quite a challenge!
The three vehicles present, including that of Cynthia and the Researchers, to which the Bulls were quite accustomed, revved their engines and drove deteriminedly between the calf and the bulls who were quite accustomed to Cynthia’s quiet presence, and knew her vehicle well. They were visibly puzzled at such sudden anti-social behaviour from someone they trusted implicitly as they towered over the Research Suzuki, looking down their trunks at it in bewilderment! Eventually, however, the persistent revving of the surrounding vehicles prompted them to begin to move off, and it was at this point that the Rescuers, led by Robert, leapt out and chasing the fleeing calf, managed to throw a rope around her chest and legs. As she stumbled, they were able to physically subdue her which was no mean task, because the orphan was still very strong. At 9 months of age, she was quite capable of pummelling a human to pulp!
Although the KWS Vet was at hand to administer sedation if necessary, we opted not to do this, since baby elephants are essentially fragile, especially when weakened through milk deprivation. Nevertheless, the Vet was able to administer the prophylactic broad spectrum antibiotic injection once the elephant was roped and down before being loaded, first into the back of a Pickup, and then into the waiting plane at the Airstrip. Once in the plane, Keepers Atanash and Kingoo placed a blanket over her head to lessen stress, and did their best to comfort the terrified baby by talking quietly to her, and touching her gently.
Back in the Nursery, a rapid appraisal of the size of this latest arrival necessitated a change of plan. Rather than place her in the prepared small Nursery Stables, she would have to go into what is known as “The Taming Stockade”, which has an escape platform . This was occupied by orphan Challa, who had to be hurriedly moved next door and once the new baby had been carried inside on the rescue tarpaulin, and had her legs untied, the Keepers had to be fleet of foot to avoid being crushed against the Stockade posts! Orphan “Sian” certainly put on a spirited display of elephant aggression, (all filmed by the American 60 Minute TV Programme) charging around and crashing into the bars, intent on crushing all in sight. However, for us this was an encouraging development because it meant she still had strength, the previous two having come in so weakened that they were too lethargic to protest, and seemed resigned to simply giving up the ghost. However, the tell tale sunken cheeks and prominent cheek bones of the latest arrival were all that was needed to know that she could not have lasted much longer without milk. Next door, orphan “Kora”, who was an intrigued spectator to the unfolding drama, was doing his best to calm her, rumbling greetings and extending his trunk through the separating bars to try and touch her.
Two Keepers kept vigil beside her all night, hurriedly climbing up the escape platform when necessary, but offering her tidbits of vegetation and a tempting bottle of milk,and by 6.30 a.m., there was joy when she suddenly battened on to the teat and downed a bottle of milk, as well as the Oatmeal and Coconut balls that Daphne had prepared as a supplement. Later on, a gaggle of other Nursery elephants arrived to greet and welcome her, and as they mingled with her, they visibly worked their magic. The latest arrival calmed down completely, clearly now understanding that the humans that were amongst them all, dressed in their distinctive green dust-coats, were friends, and there to help, rather than harm her.
Amboseli’s little “Sian” is a beautiful baby, still grey from the white Amboseli dust of her birth place, and is lucky to have been offered a second second chance of life.