The Rescue of Toto

Published on the 12th of April, 2024

With half a century of elephant conservation to our name, it can sometimes feel like we have seen it all. But even among the hundreds of orphan rescues that have unfolded over the years, Toto’s story stands out as extraordinary. His story began in the northern sector of Tsavo East.

Ravaged by poaching in the 1980s and 90s, elephants gave this part of the national park a wide berth during those decades. Once we established our Ithumba Reintegration Unit in 2004 and, together with KWS, put in place stringent security measures, word got out that the area was safe once more. Over time, the elephants have returned and now visit the area in their droves.

Over the years, our Ithumba stockades have born witness to some incredible stories. Wounded wild elephants have sought us out for help, ex-orphans have returned with injured wild friends, introduced us to their young, and in 2019, an orphaned elephant named Vaarti was even delivered into our care by a young wild female. It is a place of miracles — but even still, nothing could have prepared us for this day.

On the afternoon of 1st April 2022, ex-orphans Loijuk; and her baby, Lili; Naisula; Kitirua; and Olare arrived at the Ithumba stockades. Much to the Keepers’ astonishment, they also had a tiny baby in tow. The calf was a few days old at most. He had clearly been without milk, given his weakened body condition and how he tried desperately to nurse from all the females present, but to no avail. Aside from Loijuk, who had baby Lili by her side, none of the females were old enough to be pregnant nor lactating, and certainly none of them were the baby’s mother.

We will never know how the calf found himself in the midst of our ex-orphans nor how he came to lose his mother. The ex-orphans must have come across him alone in the bush and, realising that he was in dire need of help, frogmarched him to the place they knew to be a refuge for all elephants: Our Ithumba stockades.

Head Keeper Benjamin raised the alarm and alerted the KWS warden to come witness what was unfolding. KWS called for a rescue, as with neonates, time is of the essence. The SWT helicopter made a quick journey to Ithumba from Kaluku, where it picked up the calf — who, given his tiny size, easily fitted inside — and flew him to our Kaluku Neonate Nursery. By sunset, he was safely ensconced in a warm stable.

Toto and friends

Kenya is home to 42 distinct tribes, each one as nuanced and unique as the next. However, whether you are Luhya, Kikuyu or Maasai or Kamba, the arrival of a new child is a much-exalted blessing. The baby — mtoto in Swahili — is embraced not just into the nuclear family, but the wider tribe. Given how readily this baby elephant was embraced — first by the ex-orphans, and then by his new human-elephant family at Kaluku — it was only fitting to name him Toto, a riff on mtoto.

Typically, a team of Keepers care for each orphan. However, neonates need that single focus of a parent figure to thrive. One lead carer provides much-needed continuity; they can vigilantly monitor their little charge and register even the most subtle change, which is vital during such a precarious stage.

Toto with Joseph

We selected a special person to be Toto’s dedicated Keeper. Like so many of our ‘men in green‘, Joseph’s journey to becoming a Keeper followed a winding path. Joseph started with us as a young ranger in our Canine Unit. However his talents were called upon to look after Humpty the hippo, then he went on to assist the Kaluku team with the elephants and other assorted orphans. Toto would be his first singular elephant responsibility.

To assist Joseph, we brought on a new recruit named Sammy. Sammy is quiet and unassuming, but he also has an innate talent for animal husbandry. Elephants are magnetised to his calm, kind presence.

Toto had his ups and downs, as do most infant orphans. We weren’t spared the usual challenges that come with neonates, particularly during the teething phase. There were some worrying spells, but he has a real fighting spirit. The unwavering support of Joseph and Sammy undoubtedly helped him pull through these challenging times.

At first, Toto struggled to fall asleep inside his stable. On these nights, Joseph and Sammy would drag his mattress out to the lawn, where they rested beneath the star-studded sky. Only once the little elephant had settled into a dreamlike state did they shepherd him back inside, where he slept soundly for the rest of the night. We also came to realise that Toto has a real taste for country music. Come bedtime, you only need to follow the wafting sounds of country crooners to find Toto’s stable, where Joseph’s small radio is perched.

One thing that everyone remarks upon when they meet Toto: He looks like a tiny woolly mammoth! He is an extremely hairy elephant, all the more because of his treasured tradition of a weekly coconut oil bath. Coconut oil protects the young bull’s skin and has the fringe benefit of beautifully conditioning his hair. Toto enjoys this ritual enormously.

For his fragile first year at Kaluku, Toto lived in a little cocoon with Joseph and Sammy. His days were filled with coconut baths, strolls along the airstrip, and naps in the shade. He is a prolific football player and will kick just about anything — be it a ball, an inner tube, or even a hay bale! Even as he battled through the health challenges that come with teething, Toto never lost his playful spirit.

Fun and games

Once Toto celebrated his first birthday, he started spending time with the wider Kaluku herd. He was initially very shy, not unlike an only child on their first playdate. But slowly, slowly, he started to warm up to everyone. All the boys generously welcomed Toto into the fold, but Natibu emerged as his best boy friend.

Toto is enjoying his broadened horizons enormously, but there was a bit of a transition period. At midday, when the orphans gather for their milk feed and mud bath, Toto used to pull a hilarious disappearing act: After having his bottle, he would surreptitiously tiptoe over to the path that leads back to the compound. Then, in a swirl of dust, he would disappear around the bend and run at breakneck speed back to his stable, where he knew Joseph was on milk mixing duty. He clearly wanted a quiet hour with his original Keeper while the other orphans mud bathed! We allowed this little break from procedure for as long as Toto needed it — and now, he is one of the most enthusiastic wallowers at the group mud bath.

In August 2023, Toto got a ‘little sister’. A days-old neonate orphan was rescued from Meru National Park and came directly to our Kaluku Neonate Nursery. We wondered how Toto would react to her — he was used to being an only child, after all — but to our surprise and delight, he didn’t skip a beat. In fact, a real sibling relationship has developed between the two: When Toto is in his stable for the night, she often toddles over and ‘jailbreaks’ him (she is a whip-smart little elephant!) so they can take advantage of extra playtime before the sun sets.

Toto’s story is just beginning, but we can’t believe how much he has grown in the past two years. His first tusk is just starting to emerge. At the moment, it is nothing more than a tiny nubbin of ivory, but he is terribly proud of it and will show it off to anyone in his orbit. This is the first peek at the majestic bull Toto will become one day.

Climbing games with Joseph

But between now and then, there are many more years of dedicated care to come. It is a unique experience to be part of an orphaned elephant’s journey from the very beginning. We are incredibly grateful to the quick-thinking and intuition of our ex-orphan girls, who recognised an orphan in need and knew exactly what to do. Now, Toto has his whole life ahead of him.

Evening walks

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Toto and all the orphans reliant on us, need specialist care 24 hours a day. You can help provide for their needs, while becoming a part of their future, through an adoption.
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