Tragedy in Ithumba

We have always known, having learnt the hard way over many years, that baby  elephants can be fine one day and dead the next

We have always known, having learnt the hard way over many years, that baby  elephants can be fine one day and dead the next.   They are exceedingly fragile animals, but the rapid sudden deaths of Naimina and Enasoit at Ithumba, within just a day of one another on the 5th and 6th February 2010 respectively, left us stunned, shocked and totally gutted.

Both babies had safely passed through the Nursery, and both were in prime condition, settled at Ithumba, happy and healthy, encompassed by an outpouring of love from a new elephant family, cosseted and loved by all the ex orphans under the Matriarchship of Yatta and Wendi, as well as the orphans that were still Keeper Dependent led by Naserian, Loijuk, Sian, Makena and Chyulu.   Both casualties had been fine just hours before suddenly and unexpectedly dying after being gripped by an intense stomach pain that reduced them writhing in agony on the ground.

The autopsies undertaken by Dr. Neereh, the Vet attached to our Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, revealed that both calves were in prime physical condition, with all major organs healthy and normal, but for the small intestine which was inflamed and filled with mucous.  The Vet concluded that the death of these two healthy calves was as a result of having ingested something extremely toxic  – but what could that be?   Both took their normal bottles of milk at midnight, (along with the 5 others at Ithumba that are still milk dependent who suffered no ill affects). 

Naimina was a member of the Amboseli population, an l8 month old calf, found by tribesmen alone near the Tanzanian border, with a spear wound in her chest.   Her elephant mother having obviously been killed in neighbouring Tanzania, where so many of the Amboseli elephants have met their demise over the years at the hands of both licensed Hunters and poachers whenever they inadvertently cross man-made boundaries following  their ancient migratory routes.   Naimina healed and thrived in the Nursery, and was transferred to Ithumba on the 4th November 2009, as a fully recovered and healthy 2 year old, along with Enasoit and Meibai who also came in round about the age of l8 months.   There she, and those that traveled with her, thrived and were delighted with their new surroundings and new elephant family.   All could not have been happier or healthier.

At 3 a.m. during the early hours of the 5th February, a call from Benjamin, the Head Keeper at Ithumba, reported that Naimina had been taken ill having been fine when she took her milk just hours before.   At first light, the Nairobi Nursery Head Keeper Edwin Lusichi flew to Ithumba to administer Buscopan for stomach cramps, and the De-Wormers recommended to us as a result of an examination of Bhaawa’s intestine in far-off Japan, where two (transmitted by livestock), were isolated and identified.   Naimina was still alive when Edwin and all the drugs arrived at Ithumba, so she was dosed, but died just hours later.

We simply could not believe it!   What could possibly kill such a healthy elephant calf within just hours!   Obviously, a poison, but what and where?  In the milk?   Unlikely because all the others had exactly the same formula – could it be the added barley?   All the others had that as well, with no adverse affects.   Could it be a poisonous plant she had ingested out in the bush, or perhaps a poisonous frog or mushroom!   Daphne felt this more likely, since the original Matriarch named Eleanor had once suffered the same symptoms many years ago, writhing on the ground in pain throughout an entire night, but fortunately recovered the following morning.  Another mysterious demise also came to mind - that of orphan Zoe 15 years ago, who had been moved from the Nursery to the Voi Rehabilitation Centre along with Emily who is now the mother of “Eve” .   We never did discover what cost Zoe her life, but simply assumed that she must have eaten something highly toxic whilst browsing out in the bush in Tsavo.

The sudden and unexpected death of Naimina on the 5th February was tragedy enough, but the very night after her death another phone call from Benjamin (who had to scale the enormous rock outcrop abutting the Stockades to get a signal at 2.30am) reported that Enasoit, who, like Naimina had been pushing for his milk ration at midnight, and was happy and playful just hours before, was now also writhing in agony on the ground, suffering the same  symptoms!  Words are inadequate to describe our reaction to this terrible news.   It came as our worst possible nightmare along with the ominous thought that perhaps some mysterious viral infection could spread like wild-fire throughout our orphaned herd at Ithumba!

Enasoit, like Naimina, was already l8 months old when he was flown to the Nursery on the 11th August, 2009, yet another drought victim who had shared pasture and watering places with domestic livestock during a drought year when cattle owned by pastoral people were also dying in droves.   Like Naimina, he rapidly recovered in the Nursery, and was moved with her and Meibai to Ithumba in November to make room for the many other orphaned elephants that were coming in.

Robert Carr-Hartley (Angela’s husband) flew to Ithumba and was with Dr. Ndeereh when the autopsy on the bodies of both elephants were undertaken.   He returned with samples of the milk, the barley, the water etc., along with stomach contents and organ samples for analysis in Nairobi.  But losing two precious healthy orphaned elephants, who had survived so much, with parts of their body returned in a Cool Box, has been perhaps one of the most devastating blows that we and the Keepers have ever had to endure.  

As Enasoit lay writhing on the ground in the early hours of the morning, all the Ithumba orphans returned as a whole herd – all Yatta’s group along with Wendi and the orphans who often travel with her as a splinter group, all turned up, clearly they had been summoned by the orphans witnessing the distress of Enesoit.   With that mysterious elephant perception, they were aware of the tragedy that had cast a dark cloud over their Keeper Dependent stockade family, and like us, were grief-stricken.   But animals have learnt how to turn the page, and get on with life, even though it never gets any easier!