The return of Burra

Every elephant orphan that passes through the Trust is memorable and deeply loved – always deeply loved, because, as my mother used to say, they bring love with them

Every elephant orphan that passes through the Trust is memorable and deeply loved – always deeply loved, because, as my mother used to say, they bring love with them.   The rescue of every orphan is memorable in itself, when just its name reminds us of the circumstances surrounding the rescue since we humans lack the eternal memory of an elephant.   But some rescues have been more dramatic than others and some of the orphans more memorable than others, usually because they carry the scars that will always distinguish them or life.   One such orphan is BURRA.

Few rescues and few orphans could be more memorable than he. So imagine the delight when on the 13th February 2009 he returned to the Voi Stockades after a protracted absence from visiting the stockades. 

Burra was orphaned in 2001 when he was just 8 months old and returned to the Voi Stockades on the 13th February 2010 as a handsome, but still very recognizable, l0 year old Big Boy bull.   He is especially memorable for his stoicism during the many months it took to heal the horrendous wounds he had upon arrival in the Nairobi Nursery, and  memorable too for the companionship and care he unselfishly bestowed on the weak female orphan named Mweiga, who suffered a heart defect, and because of this was too fragile to lead a normal “wild” elephant life amongst her more fortunate peers who, in the fullness of time, graduated from the Voi Rehabilitation Centre to lead a wild elephant life.

Burra was an orphan of the cruel and indiscriminate Bushmeat Trade, caught around the neck and through one ear by a thick steel cable.   He was still with his elephant mother at the time, and she obviously pulled him free, for as the noose tightened, the steel cable cut his ear almost in two and dug deep into the back of his neck as well as the tender flesh around his throat, almost throttling him.   It was so tight that he could barely swallow and had great difficulty even lifting his head in order to suckle his mother.   Small wonder then that he rapidly became emaciated and weak, and by the time he was spotted, was not far off dying from starvation but still with his elephant mother.  

His family were en route through the human habitation that now cuts the elephants’ ancient migration route between Tsavo West and East, which is ingrained in the Tsavo elephant populations’ innate genetic memory.   As such this is a journey they feel compelled to undertake even though they run the gauntlet every time they do so, and every single year this journey becomes ever more dangerous as the human population proliferates and more and more people cultivate the land.

On that particular occasion Burra’s herd never made it because they were driven back from community lands by a Helicopter.   By then he was too weak to keep abreast of his terrified fleeing family so he fell behind, and it was clear to those in the Helicopter that he had serious injuries.  They landed, and with the help of the ground unit, rapidly overpowered him and were shocked to see the extent of his suffering – a suppurating ear three quarters severed, a steel cable deeply imbedded in the back of his neck and cutting into his throat with thick yellow pus oozing from both wounds, and a body pathetically thin, feeble and wracked with pain.

The snare was removed with difficulty for it had a leather man, as that is all the helicopter crew had with them, this involved a great deal more pain to pries out the wire in order to do so.   He was then loaded into the back of a Pickup truck and had to endure a long and bumpy road journey back to the Voi Stockades where some 25 other orphans, each with a tragic story of their own, were currently growing up and in the process of being rehabilitated back into the wild elephant community of Tsavo East having passed through the Nairobi Nursery.   There he was held overnight, and driven to Nairobi the following day in the truck that had just transferred Mulika and Nasalot to the Voi Rehabilitation Unit the day before.   His condition upon  arrival in the Nursery left all onlookers close to tears.   Seldom had we been confronted with such horrendous injuries to try and heal.

But heal, he did, although his recovery entailed many months of intensive hands-on care involving much more pain and suffering.   But Burra was a very brave little elephant with a strong will to live, and he did.  

When he was healed and strong, he was transferred to the Voi Rehabilitation Centre in Tsavo East National Park, and there he grew up under the Matriarchship of Emily and the companionship of all the others that comprised the orphaned Voi herd.   Finally, in l995, Emily made the transition to wild and Keeper Independent life, taking with her Loisaba, Ilingwei, Tsavo, Ndara, Laikipia, Salama, Aitong and Sweet Sally and in l997 the next group from the Voi  Centre under the Leadership of Natumi became Keeper Independent, incorporating Edie, Icholta, Lolokwe, Mukwaju, Mvita, Irima, Sosian and Nyiro.   Three months later  Burra took the quantum leap along with Thoma, Mweya, Solango, Seraa and Morani leaving just one orphan still Keeper Dependent at the Voi Stockades and that was the fragile elephant named Mweiga who was too weak to lead a normal elephant life and would have made an easy meal for the Tsavo lions.

Mweiga’s condition became more evident as she grew up and her ailing heart had to work harder to pump blood around a larger body.   Yet, she enjoyed a happy and sheltered l0 years of life until the 22nd December 2007, when after a wonderful mudbath with all her now wild peers who on that particular day came to join her, she stumbled and fell on her way back to the Stockades.   It was Burra who happened to be with her on that day and thinking that she had just tripped he, along with the Keepers, tried desperately to lift her.   However, when he realized that she had died, with just one heartrending cry he left, running to join Natumi’s group who were feeding at the base of nearby Mazinga Hill who in turn ran to Emily’s group, who were feeding further afield.   For the next few weeks the entire orphaned herd moved together as one unit, and only Emily returned one night alone under cover of darkness, just to make sure that Mweiga had, in fact, really gone.

From that day 2 years and 2 months ago, on the 13th February 2010, Burra's visits to the Stockades have been few.   So imagine the joy of his Keepers when he suddenly showed up again, in amongst the entourage of Emily and Edie and their two wild born babies, according to the Keepers a little hesitant after such a very long absence, and probably still harboring a painful memory of Mweiga, there to find another batch of newcomers growing up in his old Stockade.  

During Mweiga’s 10 years of life, there was not one day that she had been without the company of friends, usually two young bulls from the now  wild ex orphans, one of whom was Burra and the other his friend Morani.   They took what became known as Mweiga-Sitting Duty turn and turn about, leaving their friends to keep Mweiga  company.   They went back into the Stockades with her at night, and were by her side throughout the day, always gentle and caring, always there for her whenever she stumbled and needed their help in getting up.    When one left to rejoin the now wild unit, the other took his place.  

We will never know whether such altruism was an independent decision taken by the Carers or whether they were following the instructions of their Matriarch Emily to undertake this chore.   Perhaps Mweiga herself summonsed them because she needed some elephant company as well as her human family, but it is significant that it was usually the two young bulls, Burra and Morani, who shouldered this burden when I am sure they would far rather have been with their male age-mates out in the bush, wrestling and enjoying pushing matches, as young bulls do!  

We are all overjoyed to welcome Burra, one of the most memorable orphans, back home again for a brief visit, and to know that he is still well, having survived yet another harsh endurance test  – the prolonged drought of 2009.