It is always a tremendous boost for us to visit the Ithumba Unit’s 30 young elephants, all of whom have safely come through their very fragile Nursery period, unlike many others who could not make it. Just the name of each orphan as he or she comes romping in for their noon mudbath out in the bush refreshes memories of pitiful tiny babies, broken often in body as well as mind, bereft from the loss of their loving elephant mother and family, many injured and others even comatose and within inches of dying, saved only by the insertion of a Dextrose drip. There is Kora, who was found 50 kms. from the nearest water and any other elephant, disconsolately wandering down a remote murrum trail with a jaw shattered by the bullet that probably killed his mother, who would simply have dropped when he could walk no more, and made a meal for the predators. He had to undergo months of painful treatment in order to heal a wound which even the Vets thought could never mend. To see him as he is today is just one of many miracles. Then there is Sunyei, inches away from dying of the dreaded pneumonia, who managed to pull through where so many others have succumbed; and Kenze, one of the most pitiful and tragic cases we had every beheld, emaciated to the point of being just a bag of bones a few hours from meeting his Maker, his under-belly chewed by some small predator because he was too weak to get up in time to prevent this happening and who, despite loathing all humans, slept near a human village knowing that this was his only hope. Nor can we ever forget Wendi, who came in still wrapped in the fetal membranes, whose defective immune system had to be jump-started by an infusion of plasma taken from an older orphan. These are simply a few out of the 30 ex Nursery elephants up at Ithumba that are now healthy, happy, and living each and every day to the full. Having recently lost some Nursery babies in quick succession, a visit to the Ithumba Unit was what we needed to help boost flagging spirits and to reinforce the trust in ourselves to still be able to save elephant lives. It is also heart-warming to know that 36 other young elephants from the Voi Unit have now successfully made the transition back into the wild community of Tsavo, 66 ex Nursery successes plus others that were old enough to escape the Nursery, and who went directly to the then Matriarch at the Voi Stockades.
What a thrill to see the 30 ex Nursery inmates at Ithumba romping around without a care in the world, embracing their human “family” as warmly as they would have their elephant one, enjoying a quality of life in prime elephant habitat where there are no restrictions on space, that most vital commodity for an elephant quality of life. Now, the wild elephants join them on a daily basis, following 6 years of nocturnal visits by elephant bull scouts to the Orphans’ Night Stockades, where they have come under cover of darkness to watch and wonder and be told by the orphans that “not all humans are bad”. How touching it was that the huge bull “Rafiki” was the first to pluck up the courage to actually walk with the orphans in daylight: to lie in their mudbath with them and allow them to romp all over him, even to sleep just outside their Night Stockade, his pillow a large stone in the yard, and to wait patiently for them all to be let out first thing in the morning.
How heart-warming it has been to see the Tiva River again coming back to pulsating life, footprints of the entire spectrum of wildlife imprinted in the sand as testimony to their presence, even though they are still shy of humans and in hiding during the hours of daylight. How wonderful it has been to again to see the elephants returning en masse to the Northern Area of Tsavo – an area they abandoned for 3 decades due to poaching in the past; to find them again tunneling holes in the sand to provide for themselves and others sand-filtered water not as saline as are the few pools exposed on the surface. David Sheldrick would have been so ‘chuffed’ had he lived to see this, and also to see how the elephants have transformed Tsavo into the Kenya Wildlife Service’s highest revenue earner when at one time it was bottom of the rung, vindicating his stand in support of elephants when others called for a cull.
When the Big Bull “Rafiki” disappeared for 3 weeks, he returned with several wild friends, who behaved exactly as he did, accompanying the older orphans on a daily basis, and even returning with them so that their two smaller satellites, who are still milk dependent, could enjoy their bottles of milk three times a day, waiting patiently aside until the little ones had finished and then accompanying the Keeper independent elephants back out again as a group. And how amazing was the occasion when Yatta and the older orphans were obviously heavily occupied with wild friends, and Ol Malo, desperate for her milk ration, was escorted back to enjoy it by none other than a wild bull who waited patiently until she had finished, and then took her back out again to join the other orphans with his wild friends. How unbelievable was this, but that it happened cannot be disputed for there were many witnesses to this incredible event.
Rearing the orphans, and being able to monitor their transition back to the wild herds on a daily basis has been and continues to be a truly fascinating study for us, and one that has been, and is, full of surprises, leaving us spell-bound, astonished and humbled. We are saddened that our species is the only one within the Animal Kingdom that has been relegated by elephants to being the “pariahs” of the earth, a status that would probably be endorsed by many other species, both wild and tame in countries where animal welfare is an alien concept.
During October “Rafiki” was absent once again, only to return this time with no less than 20 of his friends, so the word is spreading rapidly! Their presence at the orphan Stockades is becoming a daily feature and the borehole pump is having to work overtime to satiate their demand for water at the Stockade trough. Now that the Gates of Yatta’s Stockade are never closed, Rafiki and some of his friends have even ventured in to partake of the orphans’ Copra supplement hand-out!
And so it is that every time we return from Ithumba, we return renewed, able to put tragedy behind us and live for today and tomorrow, confronting each challenge as it comes, for rearing the orphaned elephants has never been, and will never be, a bed of roses. However, a visit to the Ithumba Unit, as well as the Voi Unit, is the panacea needed to restore belief in our mission, reinforcing our resolve to do whatever we can, and to the best of our ability to rescue and try to save the baby elephants who find themselves tragically orphaned mainly by human related activity. We are proud that 90 young elephants still live thanks to our efforts even though 51 others very sadly never made it. We owe success to the many caring people all over the world who have so unselfishly supported our Fostering Programme and in so doing have empowered us to accomplish this achievement and who have also shared in our joy as well as our tears.