Our trio of boys graduate from the Nursery to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit, to begin the next stage in their journey back to a life in the wild
The past few years have been formative ones for Musiara, Sattao, and Dololo. Musiara was extremely young when a film crew spotted him wandering the plains of the Maasai Mara in early 2017, wishfully trailing passing herds until he grew too weak and collapsed. Sattao, who was rescued at an equally diminutive age just a few months later, was likely orphaned at the hands of poachers and came to us covered in bite marks from small predators. When Dololo joined the Nursery herd in September 2018, he was clinging to life. His rescue was the most dramatic of the three: He was found submerged in a waterhole, with his head covered by water and only his trunk poking out. For a long time, he was a tragic sight to behold, all jutting bones, hanging skin and sunken cheeks. Over the intervening months, Dololo was reborn — thanks in no small part to the friendship and support of fellow orphans like Sattao and Musiara. In fact, he had recovered so fully that he was rather making a nuisance of himself at the Nursery! We knew that the time had come for our cheeky bulls to become acquainted with some bigger playmates, elephants who would both teach them the ways of the wild and command respect.
So, on the morning of the 17th of May, we prepared to move our merry trio to our Ithumba Reintegration Unit. They had been preparing for this moment for weeks, practicing how to load onto the elephant moving truck and becoming rather blasé about the whole process. The day of departure, however, was a different story. While Sattao strolled onto the truck without so much as a backward glance, Musiara was having none of it. It took lots of patience, a little shoving, and a tranquilizer to get him onboard. Dololo was equally hesitant; he clearly sensed that this was no simple trial run.
At 3.35 am, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief as the convoy pulled out of the Nursery. Joseph drove the precious cargo, while our Land Cruiser tailed behind in case there were any emergencies. Given that everything is a bit more complicated in light of Covid-19, a Kenya Wildlife Service vehicle with two KWS rangers onboard kindly acted as chaperones, to ensure that there were no undue delays at police checkpoints.
It was a hazy morning, so the sunrise was tempered by low mists, which helped ensure the journey was a cool one. The last leg of the drive to the northern area of Tsavo East, on a dirt road through the bush, was made rather more difficult by bad ruts in the road that have developed due to recent rains. However, despite that part being slow going, the convoy made good time and pulled up to Ithumba at 8.30 am.
The truck doors were slowly opened and our three boys peeked out, clearly confused about their whereabouts. Further confirming their state of bewilderment, they were even hesitant to have their milk bottles, and instead huddled around their Keepers who led them to the water hole. At this point, their welcoming committee — in the form of many of Ithumba’s dependent orphans — arrived. As usual, the others were over the moon to find three new arrivals in their midst, and jostled for the prime real estate standing by their sides. Whenever they felt too overwhelmed by all the attention, Dololo, Sattao, and Musiara took a moment with their Nursery Keepers, who had accompanied them from Nairobi. At several points throughout the day, they could be seen nestling against their beloved “men in green.”
After their grand debut, the trio spent the rest of the morning browsing with the others. Extensive rains have left Ithumba with a profusion of vegetation, which they tucked into with great enthusiasm, particularly partial to the flowering ipomoea creeper which is prolific at the moment throughout Tsavo. At the 11 am mud bath, their appetite for milk was back with a vengeance, and they even asked for more bottles! While the rest of the herd dove into the water, they shyly watched from the water's edge and later lingered close to where the Keepers were enjoying their lunch in the shade. When three magnificent bulls ambled over for a drink from the water trough, the little boys looked up at them like they couldn’t believe their eyes.
The rest of the day was spent becoming acquainted with the rest of the Ithumba orphans — and in some cases, reacquainted, as they know many orphans from their Nursery days. When they were led back to the compound in the evening, they kept glancing behind them furtively because Challa, a 15-year-old wild-living orphan, had chosen to grace them with his presence. Once they were tucked into their stockades, they looked on in awe as Challa sparred with 14-year-old Zurura, an equally striking wild-living orphan. This was impressive stuff indeed, and you could see the thoughts churning in the heads of Musiara, Sattao, and Musiara. That very morning, they had woken up as the big boys in the midst of the Nursery. Now, as they were going to sleep, their roles had very much reversed!
It was a lot to take in for one day, but it was clear they were in the right place. Tsavo is a place for giants, brimming with vast human free spaces with room to roam and incredible mentors to teach them all they need to know. For Sattao and Dololo, it also marks a homecoming, as they were born in and rescued from Tsavo. While it will be many years in our care still before they are ready to join the likes of Challa and Zurura in the wild, today they took a very important step in that journey.