8,000 square miles of the desolate, arid and un-populated Taru Desert which formed the formidable natural barrier between the busy fertile eastern coastline of Kenya and the interior, became The Tsavo National Park in l949. It was the only empty large chunk of country that the then Colonial Government could set aside to house a sizeable population of Elephants and Black Rhinos. Empty of human habitation due to the land being too arid for agriculture and infested with tranosomiasis carrying tsetse fly, which is deadly to domestic livestock, the land was a barren thorny thicket, which was home to thousands of Elephants and some 8,000 Black Rhinos. Plains game was present only in low numbers due to the nature of the terrain, hidden from view by the nature of the Commiphora thicket.
The late David Sheldrick was tasked with installing the infrastructure that could transform this barren wasteland known simply as the Taru Desert into what is today the Tsavo National Park. He was the first to rescue orphans of misfortune way back in 1952, the first two elephants being Samson and Fatuma who were followed by many others during his time, as well as Black Rhino calves. Tsavo's buffalo orphans contributed to the pioneer herd within todays Nairobi National Park and there were antelope orphans large and small and many others as well, all of whom were returned to lead a wild life in the fullness of time. Davids legacy lives on through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, established in his memory after his death in l977, which aims to perpetuate his conservation vision.
Included in the infrastructure that David installed in Tsavo all those years ago were the first Orphan Stockades behind his Tsavo house today occupied by a new Warden. These provide the original nucleus of the current Rehabilitation Stockades for the Voi Units Elephant orphans, having been enlarged and added to in order to accommodate the growing number of orphaned elephants hand-reared through The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trusts Nairobi Nursery. Part of the original three stout stables have morphed into a Keepers Canteen kitchen and a sheltered mixing area where the daily milk ration for the milk dependent youngsters is prepared each day.
Over the years the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has successfully hand-reared over 150 orphaned elephants since Davids death, 17 of which are currently undertaking rehabilitation housed at night in the Voi Stockades. Over 45 ex-orphans launched from there are now leading perfectly normal wild lives, some with wild-born babies of their own, which they proudly bring back to share with their erstwhile Keepers still based there steering another batch of ex Nursery orphans back where they rightly belong.
The Voi orphans day begins at dawn, when they are let out of their night stockades. Those still reliant on milk rush to enjoy their first milk feed of the day while the others who have already been weaned off milk go to enjoy the supplements provided for them, where they are sometimes joined by visiting ex-orphans now living wild, who remain in touch. (All of the orphans regard themselves as one large loosely affiliated family and whenever they happen to be in the area wild ex-orphans visit the juniors either together as a herd, often with wild attachments they have befriended, and sometimes individually or in splinter groups who separate from the main herd, but return to it later. At all times the orphans know the whereabouts of each other, communicating with low frequency infra-sound which carries over distance, and is hidden to human ears. Sometimes the ex-orphans meet up with the dependent youngsters when they are out in the bush or at the noon mudbath wherever it happens to be taking place. Should one of their number be recuperating in the hospital enclosure, they come to visit him or her, just as we humans visit loved ones in hospital.
After the first feed of the day, the stockade based juniors enjoy stockade games as the Keepers take their breakfast. The elephants enjoy chasing one another around in a game of hide and seek; the boys indulge in pushing tests of strength (their favourite pastime) while the older females oversee those smaller and are at hand to mete out discipline when what starts as fun, degenerates into an argument promoting a cry for help. Once the Keepers have finished their breakfast the orphan herd heads out to browse. The elephants themselves deciding which direction to take, whilst the Keepers merely follow behind providing the comfort of carers.
During the morning browsing period the juniors often make contact with friendly wild herds and on occasions not so friendly wild matriarchs who warn them off with a low rumble and outspread ears. At such times the Keepers remain at a safe distance, observing the interaction of their charges, all of which is recorded for the daily entries in the monthly Keepers Diaries. The current matriarch of the Keeper Dependent Unit is Lesanju, who is ably aided by the other females of her group, namely Wasessa, Lempaute, Sinya, Kenia and Ndii. Lesanju tends to be suspicious when the older x-orphans take over, fearful that they will hijack a member of her family Baby Snatching is common practice amongst female elephants who have lost their natural family. Nowadays, complete family units are few and far between due to the rampant poaching for ivory which has caused such social disruption amongst the wild elephants of Africa. Lesanju is usually eager to try and steer her unit in a different direction when she sees the approach of the ex-orphans, or encounters wild herds. However, it is not uncommon for one of the group to decide to attach themselves for a trial wild outing, and if so there is not much Lesanju can do about it, for female elephants naturally defer to age, as do the bulls. Recently Lesanju has become more accustomed to having to put up with both the company of older ex-orphans and also the disappearance of a member of her group who decides to spend time out as a wild elephant but she is never happier when she has all her Junior Family to herself.
As noon approaches, the milk dependent elephants become restless, eager for their midday milk ration. They are aware of the time, and with their Keepers they begin heading to the mudbath venue where their milk will be awaiting them. Meanwhile the milk has been mixed back at the Stockades and transported in bottles to the mudbath venue, which, during the wet seasons takes place in natural waterholes that provide a swimming pool for the elephants. However, during long dry periods water has to be brought in to provide the mudbath which is an integral part of good skin care in elephants, who have no sweat glands and have to regulate their temperature by other means. As the milk dependent babies take their milk, the older Elephants drink from the drinking bins provided, which are filled with clean water daily for that purpose. The wild herds often turn up ahead of time, emptying the drinking bins before the arrival of the orphans, so the bowser has to make another trip! More recently one of the Keepers is left to guard the drinking bins, to avoid them being emptied by wild visitors.
On hot days, the mudbath provides a wonderful venue for wallowing, playing, rolling, climbing on to one another, and generally having fun, when the dynamics of the group are played out and recorded for the diary. Sometimes either the ex-orphans or wild friends join them there, and later spend time browsing with the juniors during the afternoon, before it is time for them to return to their Night Stockades. There they have their last milk feed of the day before retiring for the night. Meanwhile branches of Grewia bicolor have been cut outside the Park and placed in the Stockades for the Orphans night pickings, while soft red earth forms an incline against which the orphans like to sleep. The bark of Grewia bicolor is extremely nutritious, containing vital minerals and trace elements needed by elephants to grow strong bones. The orphans strip the bark, loosening it by revolving a branch in the mouth using he trunk to loosen a piece which is then peeled off in ribbons, and consumed. By morning a pile of bare branches remain, devoid of bark, which are used to cook the Keepers meals.
At the Rehabilitation Stockades, the Keepers do not actually sleep in with the elephants, as they do in the Nairobi Nursery, but several are on duty nearby, in case a calming human presence is needed during the night.
At any age an elephant duplicates its human counterpart in terms of age progression, so the orphans are usually keeper dependent for the first l0 years of life. However, unlike us humans, who have to learn everything, elephants are born programmed with knowledge vital to survival. Exposure to a wild situation hones that memory and equips them to lead a normal wild life when they themselves feel sufficiently confident to make the transition from human custody to a wild life.
To help us in continuing to offer these orphans a second chance of a wild and natural life please give what you can by donating through this link https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/is/donate_now.asp