Voi - the heart of the Trust's past, present and future. More than half a century ago, when David Sheldrick was the founding warden of Tsavo East National Park, he and Daphne raised their family there — including an assortment of orphaned wildlife who came into their care. In 1954, they rescued their first orphaned elephant, a young male elephant named Samson. Shortly thereafter, a female named Fatuma came into the fold. The pillars of the original stockades David built for them stand to this day.
While its size and scope has expanded over the years, in many ways, Voi remains just as it was in the old days — a vital hub for conservation in Tsavo East. It is the site of our oldest orphaned elephant reintegration unit, but also a host of field projects that support all manner of wild creatures.
This corner of Tsavo is dominated by sweeping plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. Msinga Hill is one of the few deviations from the level landscape — a gentle slope rising above the sea of dusty taupe. The Voi Unit sits right at the base of the hill, with an uninterrupted view of the Voi River and the southern sector of the park. Herds of antelope and zebras drift across the plains, punctuated by the appearance of giraffes and elephants. A sense of peace pervades the landscape.
Voi, however, is always a hive of activity. Days begin early here, at an hour not only mandated by the orphaned elephants, but also the need to beat the searing midday heat. Before the sun has even risen, several Keepers are busy mixing milk for the 30 odd elephants still dependent on our care at Voi— a process that will be repeated again in the afternoon and evening. Another group of Keepers place piles of lucerne around the compound. The orphans enjoy this nutritious supplement throughout the year, but especially during the dry season, which can be quite harsh in this part of Tsavo. Some of our younger ex orphans, who have recently transitioned to the wild but still appreciate creature comforts, see this as an opportune time to link up with the dependent herd and get their lucerne fix.
While the orphans tuck into their lucerne, the Keepers tuck into their own breakfast of tea and chapatis. Hornbills take this as their cue to swoop in, knowing the men will throw crumbs of flatbread their way. After all the humans, elephants, and birds are satisfactorily sated, the next shift begins. Half the Keepers lead the orphan herd out into Tsavo for the day, while the others remain at the compound. Elephants don’t keep the tidiest bedrooms, and their stockades require a top-to-bottom clean every morning. The stables, which house the non-elephant orphans, also get a thorough clean.
The Keepers who head out into Tsavo don their signature khaki jackets, with the exception of the Keeper who is on Diria and Nzuki duty. He wears a brilliant black and white jacket, which mimics a zebra’s stripes and helps these orphaned zebra foals recognise their own kind. During their daily adventures, they will come across dozens of zebras grazing the plains. While they prefer the company of their Keeper for the moment, they will eventually reintegrate into these wild herds.
Wild encounters are important for any orphan. For our elephants, these usually happen around the mud bath. After spending the morning browsing, they gather at the foot of Msinga Hill for their midday milk feeding. As they have their bottles, our water bowser parks beside an iconic baobab tree — one of the few in the area — and tops up the water trough and mud bath that sit beneath its ancient branches. Wild elephants take the truck’s arrival as a signal to converge upon the area, knowing it comes bearing fresh water. Even during the rains, at least a few visitors come through. At the height of the dry season, however, it isn’t unusual for more than 100 wild elephants to show up in a single afternoon. The orphans always look forward to these interactions, particularly when females bring their babies into the mix. They usher around the tiny guests, hoping they will be permitted to play with them — which, given the strict nature of elephant nannies, is never a given.
Elsewhere in Tsavo, our field works team is busy maintaining the many other watering points we manage. Many of these are supplied by the 23 boreholes we have drilled in the Tsavo Conservation Area. Powered sustainably by wind or solar power, they tap into water tables beneath the ground. The troughs they feed into receive heavy foot traffic from all manner of wildlife, but especially elephants. This means they also require weekly cleaning. It is not a glamorous task, but it is absolutely essential. While our team rolls up their sleeves and gets to work clearing and scrubbing, elephant families queue in the background, reminding us just how much they rely on these safe drinking sources.
Voi is a place of transformation. The most obvious transformation comes from the orphans themselves: They arrive here fresh from the Nursery, tiny-tusked and full of wonder as they look upon the larger-than-life elephants of Tsavo. Over the years, they come into their own, eventually striding the plains just as confidently as the wild herds they once revered. The other transformation comes with the seasons. The dry season can be a very difficult time in this corner of Kenya, as the greenery disappears and the red earth takes center stage. Day in and day out, our Voi team not only bears witness to these transformations, but also plays an active role in them. While they help our orphans blossom, they also ensure that those orphans — and their wild counterparts — have a viable place to call home. And while much has changed in the decades since David and Daphne built the foundations of Voi, that commitment to conservation, in all its forms, remains steadfast.