A Serendipitous Reunion With Kitiak

Published on the 5th of July, 2024

Given how elephants continue to amaze us, our surprise meeting with Kitiak should really come as little surprise at all: These are creatures that work in mysterious ways. But still, our serendipitous encounter with a long-lost orphan has left us reeling.

Kitiak during his first day in Ithumba (9th December 2023)

Before we dive into the tale, let us first go back in time to December 2023. Kitiak, Ahmed, Tingai, Taabu, Elerai, and Rafiki had just graduated from the Nairobi Nursery to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit, where they would continue their rewilding journey.

On one of their first days in Ithumba, a group of kudus sprung out of the underbrush and startled the Ithumba orphans, sending everyone charging off in all directions. It took some time to round up and reassemble the dependent herd, thanks in no small part to the dense vegetation in Ithumba at the time. However, it quickly became clear that the six new graduates were missing. The Keepers fanned out to find them, convinced that they would locate their babies.

We felt certain that we knew the young elephant at the river (1st July 2024)

The Ithumba team called in aerial and ground support, but the six elephants had evaporated. Thanks to very generous rains, Ithumba had transformed into verdant jungle. The thick bush, along with the hundreds of wild elephants in the area, significantly hampered the search efforts. For the following weeks, we conducted daily aerial patrols and ground recces to try to track down the elephants, but they had been absorbed into the landscape.

While we were anxious for the orphans’ return, we felt very optimistic about their welfare. Given the extremely favourable conditions, they had plenty of food and water at every turn. Aside from the huge number of wild elephants in the area, there were also lots of ex-orphans, who we felt sure would welcome the little orphans into their midst.

Finally, we were mindful that Ahmed, Kitiak, Elerai, and Rafiki were all living wild for longer than they were in our care. Rescued at older ages, they always had strong wild instincts and were very self-sufficient, even at the Nursery. We felt sure that this would not be the end of our story with them.

On the evening of 1st July 2024, a new chapter in this story finally revealed itself. Angela Sheldrick and her family had gone down to Hippo Beach, a spot on the Athi River in Tsavo near our Kaluku Field Headquarters, to celebrate her birthday.

On the opposite side of the river, a young elephant strolled down the embankment. He clocked that he had company, but was not bothered by Angela and her family. Given how calm and self-assured he was in their presence, they felt sure that he was an ex-orphan — and given his relatively young age, he could only be one of the missing six. Angela took photos and sent them to Peter and Julius, Keepers who helped raise Kitiak, Ahmed, Tingai, Taabu, Elerai, and Rafiki at the Nursery.

Their response was immediate and emphatic: “That’s Kitiak! See the angle of his tusks and the scar on his left haunch?” Kitiak has always had unusually large tusks for his age, and they point out at distinctive angles. When we rescued Kitiak in November 2022, he had been arrowed several times. The wounds healed, but one notable scar on his left side remained.

Kitiak enjoyed a long, leisurely drink before returning to his adopted family

Angela was concerned to see that he was alone. She and the others sat quietly, waiting and watching. Kitiak drank deeply and retreated to the bush, only to return twenty minutes later with a female and her calf in tow. Mum and baby were quite hesitant when they saw the humans on the opposite shore, but Kitiak confidently walked down for another drink. After quenching his thirst, he rejoined his adopted family and they retreated into the bush.

Kitiak is a picture of good health and happiness: He is plump, content, and in excellent company. The call of the wild was always strong in him, and we are thrilled that he has linked up with a kind, nurturing female.

Based on Kitiak’s appearance, we feel certain that the remaining five are in equally good care. Conditions are favourable and herds can afford to embrace youngsters into the fold who are no longer milk-dependent. This is a perfect outcome for Kitiak: He was orphaned during a difficult drought year and needed help to survive.

He seems extremely content!

It is remarkable that, in a landscape the size of a country, a baby elephant strolled down to a river for a drink, inadvertently joined Angela’s birthday celebrations, and happened to be one of the Ithumba six! We knew there would be another chapter to this story, and it is lovely to be able to share this news.

Given Kitiak’s proximity to our Kaluku Field Headquarters, we will look to keep an eye on his new family from the air. The river remains too high for them to cross at this time.

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