The story of Rafiki | Wild Friend to the Ithumba Orphans

He towers over all our Ithumba elephants

He towers over all our Ithumba elephants. Looking miniscule beside him are Mulika, Yatta, Nasalot and Kinna, the largest and oldest matriarchal elephants within the Ithumba orphan herd, who diligently - with a conscientiousness that humbles any human - watch over and protect the other 26 younger orphans in their extended Ithumba “family”.  Although wary of the human Keepers, and rightly so having lived through three decades of wholesale poaching slaughter in the late seventies, eighties and early nineties, he tolerates the humans that are with the orphans - testimony yet again, were any needed, that elephants can communicate sophisticated messages to one another in a mysterious way.  How else would a wild elephant who has lived through such troubled times, and witnessed such harassment at the hands of dreaded humans, behave in such a way?   

We have given him a name “Rafiki”, the Swahili word for “Friend”, and a friend of the orphans he certainly is, patiently waiting outside the stockades when Yatta brings back the two milk dependent babies within her group for their milk feed in the early mornings, at the noon mud bath, and in the late evenings.  Those two are Orok, the ex Amboseli baby who has been adopted by Nasalot, and Ol Malo, Yatta’s favourite calf.  That the older elephants understand that these two youngsters still need their milk is another factor that testifies to the human-like intelligence of elephants and that they take the trouble to return them at the correct times is very touching.   

Wild elephants have been visiting our orphans in their night stockades at Ithumba now for the past six years, speaking to them in rumbled tones,curious about their circumstances and the human family that they love as their own.  One such regular visitor has obviously been “Rafiki”, a magnificent bull in his prime, probably in his mid twenties, huge in stature and tolerant in temperament.  Daphne made the decision to leave the doors to the big orphans’ stockade open at night some weeks ago to encourage more orphan/wild elephant contact, having heard from the Keepers that the orphans crowd along the length of the side nearest to the drinking trough whenever the wild visitors arrive.  Although initially somewhat anxious about Orok and Ol Malo who could miss out on their milk feeds, she was certain that Yatta would respect their need for milk and be sufficiently reliable to return them to be fed by the Keepers. She was right. Before that Rafiki one day actually slept just outside the Stockade, resting his giant head on a huge stone slab just outside the door of that occupied by the younger set made up of Madiba, Ndomot, Galana, Naserian, Buchuma, Rapsu, Challa, and Sidai, all of whom are in awe of him.   Young bulls need a role model to hero- worship, and they certainly have one in Rafiki.  When he comes to the mud bath, they look up at him in wonder, standing slightly aside to allow him right of way, but once he lies down in the puddle, they all pile in and relish being as close as possible to him.  When he waits patiently outside the Stockade in the late evenings for the orphans to enjoy their Copra hand-out, and the youngsters to take their milk, Wendi and Selengai try to attract his attention by “showing off” – pushing over small shrubs, rushing around in a frivolous way, doing anything to make him look their way!

Of the “Big Group” the one most familiar with Rafiki is Kinna who is not encumbered by a smaller “favourite”attachment. Ol Malo is never far from Yatta, and Orok is an extension of Nasalot while Mulika has Selengai.  But Kinna, who is the disciplinarian of all the young, waltzes up to drink beside Rafiki at the stockade water trough without even a second thought.  The other big females understand that their younger attachments are not yet so bold and nor should they be, for in elephant society the young have respect for their elders and Rafiki presents a formidable figure in terms of size.

We want to share the story of Rafiki, knowing that they, like us, will be left with a feeling of reverence and wonder.  Our orphans at Ithumba have brought the wild herds back to the North.  The Tiva watercourse is littered again with the holes that they excavate, despite the presence of surface pools, because water filtered through the sand is fresher and sweeter and not so saline.  There was a time when the Northern Area of Tsavo held more giant tuskers that anywhere else on earth.  If one did not encounter several carrying ivory over 100 lbs. on each side on an afternoon game drive, one would return disappointed.  Today, just to see Rafiki in all his splendour, and evidence of hundreds of others who have returned to their previous stronghold, is so gratifying for those of us who knew the Ithumba of yore.  And as for the orphans, well, they have taught us so much and will continue to do so.