The Kibwezi Forest welcomes its first Elephant Orphans

On June 24th 2014 Murera and Sonje made the long awaited journey to Umani Springs, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s brand new orphan relocation unit in the Kibwezi Forest

On June 24th Murera and Sonje made the long awaited journey to Umani Springs, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s brand new orphan relocation unit in the Kibwezi Forest.  

Watch Murera and Sonje's graduation to Umani Springs

This unit, which is now one of three of Reintegration Units, including Ithumba and Voi, was considered for these two elephants due to their compromised condition; Murera having a broken hip which has healed but has left her with a weak leg, and Sonje with her leg injury caused by a bullet wound which has left her knee with little flexibility.  Due to these disabilities these two orphans were never going to be elephants who would be able to live viable lives in the dry conditions of Tsavo National Park where they would have to walk huge distances in the dry seasons in search of food and water. The Umani Springs stockades in the Kibwezi Forest provides an excellent solution where Murera and Sonje and orphans with similar disabilities can still have a second chance of life in the wild within a more gentle and plentiful environment. 

The Kibwezi Forest is nestled within the foothills of the Chyulu Hills National Park where the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has secured a concession of this 18,000 acre ground water forest from the Kenya Forest Service, having entered into a public-private partnership to preserve and protect this unique ecosystem. This forest forms one of the Trust’s Saving Habitats programs, and just four years since its inception tangible success is evident, revealing that wildlife numbers have soared, illegal activity has been heavily reduced whilst poaching has been eradicated. Protection programs have been put in place, and the community are benefiting from an end to human-wildlife conflict, increased employment, varied outreach initiatives as well as increased rainfall due to the rapid recovery of the forest. With the boundaries of the forest protected from three sides, the DSWT having erected 42 km of electrical fence, and due to plenty of food, the area is filled with a healthy variety of wildlife including many wild elephants, whilst the fourth boundary remains open onto the Chyulu Hills National Park and Tsavo West beyond.  The DSWT has worked closely with both the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya Wildlife Service in implementing this third relocation unit, constructed thanks to a most generous donation pledged for this purpose.  

The Kibwezi Forest harbors a wide variety of vegetation and hidden secrets, from the fresh water springs spilling out of lava having percolated through the porous Chyulu mountain range to the baobabs trees which give way to lush ground water forest filled with giant figs, of which there are over 12 different species. Palm forests lead to open ground filled with fresh watering holes whilst beyond is the backdrop of the beautiful Chyulu hills with their forested peaks, Amboseli and Mt. Kilimanjaro. This very beautiful ecosystem will prove to be an ideal home for these two orphans, and other orphans to follow, with plenty of exposure to wild elephants. Helping to fund the concession fees payable to the Kenya Forest Service for protecting this vital habitat along with additional conservation measures put in place by the DSWT, is the revenue from the Umani Springs Lodge, which was built with a legacy left to the Trust, enabling the Kibwezi Forest Saving Habitat program to be self-sustaining.

During the lead up to Sonje and Murera’s move, and despite endless practices with the Keepers and plenty of milk, Sonje adamantly refused to get into the elephant-mover truck unlike Murera who was far more comfortable following her Keepers inside. So when the final day arrived and it was time for these two orphans to make the four and a half hour journey from Nairobi to the Kibwezi Forest, KWS veterinarian Dominic Mijele was arranged to be present to assist with loading Sonje into the truck under tranquilisation which took place at 4.00am. Murera was loaded first without any resistance, whilst Sonje was briefly put to sleep and gently pulled onto the truck on a canvas stretcher before being quickly revived once inside. 

None of this took very long and the convoy was ready to depart by 4.30am. The truck began the journey with Keepers Amos, Simon and Phillip Okonde on hand ensuring that the elephants were comfortable and fed throughout the journey.   Following close behind in a land rover were Angela Sheldrick, Robert Carr-Hartley and Daphne’s three grandchildren Taru and Roan Carr-Hartley and Emily Chavrier. 

The journey went smoothly and thanks to the early hour of departure the orphans arrived in good time. It was just 8.30 am by the time the convoy turned into the Kibwezi Forest main gate and followed a track through the forest for 15kms before finally arriving at the very attractive new relocation unit surrounded by shady acacia and yellow fever trees. This unit has been carefully designed by Angela Sheldrick and sensitively constructed to offer practical refuge for the orphans at night, whilst ensuring minimal disturbance to the habitat.  Philip Okonde has been chosen to be Head Keeper of this new unit, and to take on the role that Edwin, Benjamin and Joseph so ably hold for the other DSWT Orphan Units. Joining Philip to begin with are Amos, Simon and Aden, which makes a very experienced Keeper team.

Murera was first out of the transporting lorry and immediately downed her milk bottles, before being followed closely by Sonje, who despite being so reluctant to enter the lorry had travelled remarkably well. Both were clearly confused by their new surroundings but immediately began to fill their stomachs relishing the variety of browse that surrounded them. Following their Keepers they explored the area, but it was Sonje who took the lead, Murera a little overwhelmed by the change. 

Their arrival was met by an expectant Kibwezi Forest team consisting of the Umani Springs Lodge staff, the DSWT Anti-Poaching Chyulu Team members, and James Mbuthia head of the DSWT’s Kibwezi Forest Project, all who have been eagerly awaiting the orphans' arrival having watched their new home take shape over the months. This was indeed an exciting day for all concerned. 

The first day was spent close to the stockades, with a mud bath and dust bath on hand, whilst that evening both Murera and Sonje happily entered their new stockades appearing genuinely comfortable in their new surroundings, although it was evident they missed their elephant friends. That night the stockades were visited by wild elephants which had come to drink from the new drinking trough erected for the orphan’s use outside the electrified perimeter fence. Murera was a little insecure during the night and needed her Keepers close at hand for comfort, but the first day in their new home had gone much smoother than Angela and Robert could ever have imagined thanks to the careful planning that had been made before. 

What both Murera and Sonje did not know was that three of their most special friends, Zongoloni, Quanza and Lima Lima would be joining them on the 27th June. Read the story of their journey to the Kibwezi Forest here.