Celebrating Ten Years of Umani Springs

Published on the 24th of June, 2024

Ten years ago, we leapt into the unknown. Two very unique orphans had come into our care — elephants who had been permanently damaged by the cruel hand of fate.

They presented us with a unique challenge: How do we give these orphans the fully wild future they deserve, while also providing them with a protected, supportive environment to call home?

We found our answer in the Kibwezi Forest. An extension of Chyulu Hills National Park, this lush groundwater forest is a rare gem in Kenya’s landscapes. Thanks to the Umani Springs, a network of crystalline springs that percolate out of the lava banks and through the forest floor, the Kibwezi Forest is green year-round, meaning foot and water is always readily available. It is also a wilderness with a high level of oversight: In 2008, we embarked on a long-term lease of the Kibwezi Forest as part of our Saving Habitats program. Secured by a fenceline and rigorously patrolled by our teams, we knew it would be a safe haven for orphans who have already struggled so much.

The orphans who started it all need no introduction: Sonje was rescued on 11th February 2012. Her right knee was completely fractured, as the result of either a gunshot or a spear wound. Just ten days later, an even more dire case arrived on our doorstep. Murera had stepped on a poisoned spike, which ravaged her feet and left her with deep, suppurating wounds. She had also taken a serious fall, which damaged her hip and severely debilitated her entire hind end.

Both girls beat the odds by surviving, but it was obvious that they would be physically compromised for the rest of their lives. This was particularly true for Murera, who would always struggle to cover great distances. We needed a special place for them to heal, flourish, and eventually, transition to a wild life. The Kibwezi Forest, with its gentle environment and high security, seemed a most fitting destination for all of that to come to fruition.

It is a challenge to begin a Reintegration Unit from scratch, without the continuity of older and wiser wild-living orphans to mentor new arrivals. We approached the girls’ graduation with great excitement, but also some trepidation.

Murera and Sonje arrived as the first residents of Umani Springs on 24th June 2014. While the move went well, they were quite unsettled in their new home. What they didn’t know was that just three days later, three of their closest friends would also be joining the herd. Quanza, Lima Lima, and Zongoloni were a bonded trio, and while they all held psychological trauma from the events that left them orphaned, their scars were not physical.

From the moment the girls stepped foot in Umani Springs, the herd became a family. Roles and responsibilities began to take shape: Murera was the head matriarch, ably assisted by Sonje. Lima Lima was the scout, serving as the eyes and ears for her human-elephant family. In time, Zongoloni would emerge as the leader of the ‘nightclubbers,’ shepherding orphans who were ready to begin exploring a wild life. Quanza’s star has only begun to shine, as she has proved herself to be an exceptional nanny in recent years.

As the years progressed, our Umani family continued to grow. In January 2015, the girl gang welcomed its first bull residents, Jasiri, Faraja, and Ngasha. A few months later, Ziwa joined their ranks. The following year, Mwashoti and Alamaya arrived. Like Murera and Sonje, they were dire cases: Mwashoti’s front foot had nearly been amputated by a poacher’s snare, while Alamaya had been mauled by hyenas.

In May 2020, Enkesha and Luggard arrived. Both victims of poaching, Enkesha’s trunk was all but severed by a snare, while Luggard had been shot several times in the hind leg. Not a year later, young upstarts Kiasa, Kiombo, and Maktao brought new energy to the herd. In the 2022 drought, two new rescues went directly to Umani: Kapei, who arrived a shell of an elephant and quickly transformed into a spoiled prince, and Amali, a quiet little girl who lost the tip of her trunk to a poacher’s snare.

Umani Springs has a unique, equalising power. While many of its orphans are there specifically because of their physical limitations, their injuries don’t define them. Murera moves far slower than the rest of the herd, but the others implicitly respect her as their leader. She may bring up the rear, but she is always guiding and dictating the way. Regardless of the scars they carry from their past, all Umani’s orphans are happily thriving, deeply bonded to each other and their Keepers, while also forging successful friendships with the wild elephant community.

For all its triumphs, Umani is no stranger to heartbreak and tragedy. We will always mourn the orphans we were unable to save, notably Balguda, Shukuru, and our little lionheart, Luggard. In July 2023, we were shattered to the core when our beloved Keeper and friend, Patrick Muiruri, was killed. These losses left irreparable holes in our hearts.

But ultimately, Umani is a place of hope. Many of our original orphans are now leading fully wild lives — which, of course, is the goal of our Orphans’ Project. But wherever their wild lives take them, they remain deeply rooted to the place and people who played such a formative part of their upbringing. Ziwa, Jasiri, Faraja, and Alamaya report back periodically, while Sonje, Zongoloni, Lima Lima, Quanza, and Mwashoti are near-daily visitors. Their devotion to their human-elephant family is touching: Most mornings, a smattering of ex-orphans arrive outside the stockade before dawn. They then join the dependent orphans for the day’s events, before peeling off into the forest when the youngsters return to their rooms in the evening.

We are only ten years into Umani Springs, but already, its family tree is branching out. In March 2023, Murera — the elephant who started it all — became the first Umani orphan to become a mother. Her daughter, Mwana, really is the child of the Umani herd. Given her compromised condition, Murera knows that she would benefit from extra support, and she willingly accepts it from her human-elephant family. Mwana is truly the most healthy, happy, and advanced baby elephant we have ever met — a real triumph.

In the coming years, Umani’s family tree will only continue to grow. We know that Lima Lima, Zongoloni, and Sonje are currently pregnant — within a year or two, the Kibwezi Forest will become a creche! And of course, there will always be new rescues, Nursery graduations, and stories still to be written.

As we celebrate all that has happened in Umani Springs, and all that is yet to come, we must give an enormous nod to the people who make it possible. Umani began with a handful of trusted, long-serving Keepers. At the time, we imagined that they would remain there just long enough to settle the establishment, before returning to circulate between our many other facilities. However, it quickly became clear that the bonds here were too important to disturb. Over the years, select Keepers have joined the Umani team, each one a vital thread in the patchwork of this special place.

Looking back on a decade and looking forward to what the future holds, we salute the magical elephants, people, and environment that form Umani Springs.

Above and in no particular order, we have shared some of our favourite photos taken at Umani Springs over the years.

Meet the Umani Herd

Umani Springs is our newest and most intimate orphan unit. Although it is tailored for elephants with physical limitations, it is open to any orphan who would benefit from its supportive environment. Meet the orphaned elephants who call this special place home.
Meet the Herd

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