On the 17th of November it was time for our second move this month, this time with three orphans destined for our Ithumba rehabilitation unit in northern Tsavo East. Bongo, accompanied by two girls, naughty Laragai together with her friend Narok were the chosen three to be transported. Laragai had become quite a handful, very disobedient of her Keepers and always single-mindedly on her own mission. She had become a master at giving her keepers the slip and racing back from the forest to the stockades in order to scavenge for left over greens and Lucerne in the stables. Whenever she heard her Keepers coming in search of her she would take evasive action by hiding behind the blankets hanging on the washing line. This she did time and time again very effectively. There were of course other naughty escapades and she was fast corrupting some of the other more mellow elephants like Lima Lima so it was decided that Laragai would benefit enormously from some discipline from the older Ithumba orphans. Narok was ready to go, old enough to need more interaction with older elephants, whilst heading to better browsing fields as well.
Then Bongo, our headache. Lovely Bongo who arrived quite unexpectedly one night having been rescued from community lands on the slopes of Mount Kenya. His presence deep in rural lands had been reported for a couple of months, but every time KWS tried to locate him he was hard to find. He was eventually located and darted and anesthetized by the DSWT/KWS Meru Veterinary Officer Dr. Bernard Rono and loaded onto a land cruiser and driven to the Nursery. Dr. Bernard Rono appreciated that he was far too old to be in the Nursery and certainly old enough to live without milk, but he was concerned that he needed friends, and to dump him in protected areas alone would be unfair on him, so the decision was made to bring him to DSWT’s Nairobi Nursery. The fate of his lost herd has never been established.
Bongo was delivered to us at night, about 4 years old with long tusks and very capable of killing a man. He was very wild understandably to begin with but slowly settled down in his stockade over the weeks and gained condition. He seemed tame enough through the bars and posts of his stockade, but no Keeper was brave enough to jump in with him, as his dagger like tusk (the second was chipped) a harsh reminder that should he pin someone against the stockade posts he could certainly cause serious damage. He remained in his stockade for a couple of months while we waited for the rains to break in Tsavo in order to move him down to the more suitable environment of older orphans. Once in Tsavo he would have the ability in time to assimilate back into the wild herds, with some friends and a new family by his side.
On Sunday the 17th the time had arrived with pregnant skies signaling pending rain in Tsavo - the time was right. However we were presented with the tricky dilemma of how best to get Bongo loaded, as clearly he was not about to step out from his stockade and follow a bottle into the elephant moving truck. So it was decided that Bongo would be anesthetized for the short time it took to lay him on a stretcher and pull him the short distance from his stockade to the waiting truck and place him in his traveling compartment before waking him up.
This operation took place at 4.00am in the morning with Dr. Domnic Mijele on hand to put Bongo to sleep and to revive him again. This happened like clockwork, and it was just 10 short minutes before Bongo was back on his feet, this time in the truck compartment drinking milk with alacrity through the bars.
Next to be loaded was little Laragai followed by Narok – both followed their milk bottles into their compartments without a hitch or so much as a backward glance. The elephant-mover truck had been well prepared the day before with the water tanks full so that water could be sprayed through the shower head on the elephants during the journey should the temperatures soar, and plenty of cut greens were also placed in each compartment, Lucerne for treats along the way and of course copious quantities of mixed milk for the journey. Three of their favourite Keepers accompanied them on the journey ot Ithumba. The truck rolled out of the Nursery gates at 4.30am, with Robert Carr-Hartley following in a land rover to ensure that there were no glitches and hitches along the way.
The convoy made exceptional time arriving at Ithumba at 10.00am in the morning to an expectant group of Ithumba Keepers delighted to be receiving some more young charges and of course all the dependent orphans were there to greet the new arrivals. It was not long before Narok and Laragai were out of their compartments and surrounded by numerous strange elephants and new Keepers – they took their bottles of milk but seemed understandably confused and disorientated.
Then it was time to off load Bongo, what would be his first steps outside of his stockade since being rescued. No one really knew how he would behave or react, but we need not have worried for Bongo was so beautifully behaved that it was impossible to know as a casual observer that this was infact his first time taking a milk bottle from a Keeper without the protection of the stockade doors – Bongo as it turned out was a clinging vine, sticking close to the Keepers and mixing well with the others. It was both humbling and heartwarming to watch. He has become such a favorite with our Keepers in Nairobi and ourselves, having undiluted Bongo time each day as we tended to his every need while in the Nursery stockades. Never could we have imagined such a smooth transfer.
Many of the ex orphans arrived as if on cue to meet the new arrivals, and Ithumba was abuzz with excitement, everyone delighted by the new arrivals. The three newbies on the other hand were rather overwhelmed sticking close to each other and their Keepers for comfort. It was not long before they were browsing away from the stockades in the bush, enjoying all the new tastes, scents and sounds in their new home. Come evening time they filed into the stockades like old hands, surrounded by each other and some new friends.
Monday was uneventful as they seamlessly went about the Ithumba daily routine, but surprisingly Narok and Laragai seemed the most agitated out of the three, Bongo seemingly enjoying his new found freedom, but still dependent on his Keepers searching for them and always choosing to stay close. Tuesday drama struck. Laragai and Narok were very agitated and kept heading off into the bush followed expectantly by a group of young dependent Ithumba residents including Mutara and Shukuru and Sities in hot pursuit as they tried hard to comfort and calm them, and guide them back into the fold. What unfolded is the whole group took off late that afternoon and never returned to the stockades with the rest. Despite searching the Keepers could not locate them before nightfall. The Keepers were confident that because they had left with some of the dependent elephants who had been at Ithumba for a good while and knew their way back to the stockades they would return for their milk later that same night. This did not happen.
Angela Sheldrick received a panicked call from Ithumba about the missing nine elephants on Wednesday morning. What surprised her most was that Bongo was not part of the missing elephant group, instead he had stayed close to his Keepers. The aircraft was called from Kaluku and our anti-poaching teams were part of the search party as everyone participated in trying to locate the missing still dependent orphans group. The only comforting factor was that it had been raining and there was plenty of greens and standing water about. The search went on for three days, with 14 hours flown in search of the babies, before finally late on Saturday they were spotted from the air just as a huge storm rolled in, and all visibility was lost. The ground teams closed in on them having been given the coordinates from the plane and finally met up with a very confused and desperate group of lost and drenched little elephants who were delighted and extremely relieved to see their Keepers. They immediately followed them in the torrential storm, all in single file sticking close to their Keepers as they were guided home, the whole procession staggering through the black cotton mud in extremely difficult conditions, some Keepers even loosing the soles of their boots during this sodden rescue.
We were all so relieved with the report from the aircraft that they had been located and that the ground teams were moving in to where they were, as we had become increasingly more worried with each passing day. What had transpired is that Narok and Laragai had lead the others on this wild goose chase as the older Ithumba dependent orphans had tried desperately to guide them home – but what had obviously happened is that they all lost their bearings eventually, yet what was amazing was how they remained huddled together as a unit taking care of each other through the days and nights and thunderstorms that passed. The Ithumba old hands like Mutara and Sities providing the comfort and reassurance the new babies needed. This must have been a very daunting and frightening time, as they were all young calves, without the input of an older ex orphan to help and guide them. Since being back in the fold Laragai and Narok have settled down and do not let their Keepers out of their sight now. The new three are beginning to get completely used to their new environment and Bongo is very much one of the team, having assimilated into his new life seamlessly.