On the evening of the 26th of June Mark Goss from the Masai Mara Elephant Project reported an orphaned elephant case to Angela Sheldrick at the DSWT Nairobi headquarters alerting her of a possible rescue. A lone elephant calf was sighted by a research assistant near Observation Hill in the Olare Orok Conservancy, part of the beautiful Masai Mara ecosystem. One of the wonders of the world, this magnificent area has breath-taking views, abundant wildlife and endless plains with a high concentration of wildlife and predators too. The baby was extremely vulnerable with no sign of elephants in the area so the decision was made to capture him despite the late hour, as they feared for his life should he remain alone overnight. Without the protection of his herd he was small enough to be extremely vulnerable to hyena or a pride of lions. A team supported by Richard Pye captured him at 4.40pm and transported him in the back of a high-sided trailer behind a tractor to the Iseketa headquarters to be kept overnight until the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescue team could mobilize a rescue the next morning. The trailer was backed up against a wall and placed under parking shelter as it had begun to rain. The calf was raised to his feet so he would not be recumbent throughout the night. To everyone’s amazement, despite the trailers high sides, the calf managed to clamber out over the side during the night and jump to freedom; in the morning he was nowhere to be seen!
The rescue plane was scheduled to depart at 7.30 am but the flight was placed on ‘stand by’ while a search was mobilized to relocate the calf again. A team of scouts patrolled the seas of grass in search of the tiny lone figure, but it was not until 11.30am that they finally caught up with the little fellow. The Olare Orok scouts remained on site observing the calf from a safe distance while the DSWT rescue team flew to the closest airstrip. The Mara is in south west Kenya, a forty five minute flight from Nairobi.
Richard Pye collected the DSWT rescue team and drove them to the site where the scouts were protecting the calf. Showing little hesitation and striding across the plains the experienced DSWT Keepers were able to catch up with the calf and restrain the baby quickly and effectively, ably assisted by the Masai Conservancy Scouts who followed close behind incase help was needed. Given the drama from the previous night’s capture which they had performed alone, the Scouts were extremely interested to learn the secret technique behind capturing elephants. It was not long before he was safely loaded into the back of the trailer with two Keepers for company and driven in convoy slowly back to the airfield. Pregnant dark skies threatened rain and by now it was nearing 5.00pm.
Once at the airfield the team worked swiftly transferring the recumbent calf into the waiting Cessna Caravan aircraft and prepared him for flight, strapping him down, and carefully placing him on an intravenous drip for the duration of the flight. We estimated this little male was around 15 months old and he had obviously been without his family for a while given his sunken cheeks and bloated stomach, with evidence of worms in his stools already visible.
The team finally arrived at the Nursery well after dark and he was quickly off loaded, medicated while still recumbent and then given a taste of milk before being helped to his feet. Amazingly he was remarkably calm, one very much got the feeling watching him that he understood the circumstances, knew he was being helped, and was grateful to finally be surrounded by the comforting rumbles of the other orphaned elephants in their night stockades who communicated to him that all was okay. His stockade was adjacent to Roi’s and she concentrated her efforts to settle the baby reaching for him with a comforting trunk whenever he came close. By morning he was taking his milk bottle from a keeper, and even looking to suck fingers.
How long this baby had been alone and the stress he had endured having been physically captured not once but twice makes his behaviour all the more remarkable. His ‘Hodeni-like’ moves when he managed to escape from a high sided trailer clambering up the sides and then jump a significant height down the other side before vanishing into the night left everyone in complete disbelief that it was possible for an elephant to do so. However his resolve when rescued and once safely back at the Nairobi Nursery, his understanding of the situation, cooperation and gentle calm nature have led us to choose a Masai name for him, TUSUJA, which means ‘to follow’ in Maa.
The following months for Tusuja have been fraught as his condition plummeted. We were sure his problems were as a result of multiple kinds of parasites and he required intensive treatments spanning a number of months before we could confidently say he was through the worst. We so often see these complicated medical cases when elephants share ranges with domestic livestock, particularly when their natural immune systems are compromised due to difficult circumstances which was the case with Tusuja. He is a wonderful elephant, whose gentle manner makes him a firm favourite with many of our orphans presently in the Nursery.