The Death of Olkeju

Published on the 23rd of July, 2009

Over the years we have certainly suffered our fair share of orphaned elephant deaths, each one the loss of a loved one, a treasured memory, and the sadness of having lost an animal that duplicates ourselves in terms of emotion and age, who has also endured the heartbreaking trauma of losing an elephant mother and beloved family

Many have died of grief, having simply lost the will to live, many of pneumonia, some from Rota viral infections and parasites transmitted by the illegal intrusion of cattle into areas that ought to be set aside for them alone, or during drought years falling down deep wells dug by humans in sandy luggas for their livestock and some simply from unknown causes.  However, the loss of little Olkeju has come as an enormous shock, because it happened to be a tragic accident, too eager for his milk during the evening feed of the 18th July, when, having rushed to his stable, he gulped down his milk, and in so doing some went down the wrong way and into his lungs.  He died just half an hour later, in the arms of his favourite Keeper, who also happened to be one of our best and most experienced.

Olkeju is the baby whose elephant mother died an agonizing death on Mugie Ranch in the Laikipia district of Northern Kenya from a longstanding chronic abscess on her flank which eventually deprived her of life.  The rest of the family nurtured little Olkeju to the best of their ability, but there was one vital ingredient that they could not give him, and that was enough milk.  For two weeks he was with the herd, but gradually becoming weaker and weaker until he could no longer keep up, and was rescued by members of the British Army (known by the locals as the “Johnnies”) who just happened to be undertaking exercises on the ranch at the time.  

He came to the Nursery in a near death condition, starved almost to the point of no return and supported by an intravenous drip inserted into an ear vein in situ before he was airlifted to the Nairobi Nursery.  We doubted that he would survive the night, but he did, and what is more gradually began to thrive, gain weight and become a little stronger with each passing day.

On the day he died, Daphne and Angela left all the Nursery elephants in good and capable hands – all on the mend and doing well.  It came as a devastating blow to hear that evening that we had lost little Olkeju who had run into his stable, taken his milk ration with such relish, but then exuded fluid from the trunk, mouth and the eyes, and was dead before our Head Keeper Edwin could even administer an antibiotic.  What had killed this healthy calf was a mystery, especially as it had happened so rapidly.  The Vet came and undertook a postmortem, suspecting Klepsiella creeping pneumonia, but the lungs were perfectly healthy EXCEPT for some milk in the lungs.  Our little Olkeju had choked to death on his milk.  It was as simple as that, which has made it all the more tragic.  

Baby elephants are essentially fragile.  We have always known that.  But little Olkeju has demonstrated to us humans just how fragile and vulnerable they are once they lose their elephant mother.  Now, when the infants run for their milk, they will be made to calm down a little beforehand.  The opening on the nipple has to be made a smaller size for the littler one so that they drink more slowly.  With every new baby, a new lesson is learnt, but what Olkeju taught us is a particularly painful lesson for us, because it is a freak accident that that should never have happened.  Olkeju should have been able to live three score years and ten, because he looked as though he would, the spring was returning to his step, his eyes were clear and bright, and he was a playful and loveable member of the Junior Nursery group just 30 minutes before he breathed his last.  It doesn’t come any more traumatic than that for those that held him close in their hearts.

As we, and his many foster-parents grive the passing of this brave little elephant, who should not have died in such a tragic accident, we can only hope and pray that he is back with his beloved elephant mother somewhere in the great somewhere, where all earthly trauma and pain is no more.  And lets face it, there is plenty of that for the earthly elephants at the present time, with an escalation of poaching, starvation due to drought conditions, and often people who should care, but perhaps do not.