Among hundreds of orphans we have rescued over the years, Vaarti’s story stands out as one of the most extraordinary moments we have ever witnessed. It is a testament to all that is great about elephants — their intuition, their empathy, and their intelligence.
Ithumba is not typically where an orphan’s story begins. As one of our three Reintegration Units, it is where an orphan graduates only once they have outgrown the Nursery. The orphans at Ithumba are older, ready to learn the ways of the wild and ultimately reclaim their place among Tsavo’s wild elephants. And yet, improbably, Ithumba is where Vaarti’s story began.
On the morning of 18th September 2019, a female elephant and a newborn calf strode up to the stockades. This in and of itself was not unusual, as Ithumba plays host to wild visitors on a daily basis. However, several things gave our Keepers pause: They had never seen this female before, but at eight or so years old, she was far too young to be the calf’s mother. The fact that she was not lactating settled the matter. They were not in the company of other elephants, nor did any more arrive in their wake. The calf was very thin and looked as if he had not had milk for several days. The Keepers began to wonder if he was an orphan.
The behaviour that followed confirmed their suspicions. The calf left the female and ran over to a group of bulls at the nearby water trough. Starving to the point of desperation, he went around to each one and attempted to nurse from them. Only when the bulls moved away did he reluctantly return to the female.
As the desperate scenes continued with the calf now making his way into the midst of the dependent orphans trying to suckle various different calves, the KWS warden was called to scene as it was now abundantly clear that this baby was an orphan. The young female he arrived with had already stepped aside granting access to him. Once she saw that he was in safe hands, she moved off into the bush and was not seen again. We will never know how she came to find this calf — or, indeed, how he became orphaned, although we suspect poaching, as a dead female was later discovered by our aerial unit a few days later. We are certain that she came to Ithumba with the express intention of delivering him into safe hands.
Once KWS gave the green light, we mobilised a rescue. Given his precarious state, we decided to fly the calf directly to our Kaluku Neonate Nursery, which is relatively close to Ithumba. We were raising several infant elephants at Kaluku, so he would be in good company.
Before the orphan took flight, Ithumba Head Keeper Benjamin bestowed him with the name Vaarti. This means ‘luck’ In the language of the local Kamba tribe, so his name was both a token of good fortune and a way to forever connect him with his roots.
Initially, Vaarti thrived. With the teething stage came a predictable and serious loss of condition, but then something even more precarious happened: Vaarti developed a severe urinary tract infection, to the degree that he had large crystals in his urine. Antibiotics would work for a few days, only for the infection to return with a vengeance. Despite our best efforts, he started to deteriorate before our eyes.
We knew that time was running out for Vaarti. As a last ditch effort, we tried one last antibiotic. When he began to improve, we all held our breath: He had had so many false starts that we hardly dared hope for more. But miraculously, the antibiotic did the trick, and he made a rapid and complete recovery. This felt like Vaarti’s second miracle, as he was living on borrowed time at that point.
We remained very cautious as Vaarti recovered. He was too weak to venture into the bush with the other orphans, especially given the shenanigans Lemeki was prone to. Instead, he paddled around on the veranda and enjoyed little jaunts on the lawn. His days were spent resting in the shade, observing the goings-on around Kaluku, and napping in his cosy stable as he regained his strength.
Around the time of Vaarti’s miraculous recovery, Mayan was just overcoming his own health saga. Although Mayan is a full year older, his ailments stunted his growth, so both boys are exactly the same size. They are more than friends; they are brothers by choice — indeed, they could almost be twins, were it not for Mayan’s unusual honey-coloured eyes.
Vaarti is a ray of sunshine in elephant form. He is never in a bad mood and always seems delighted by what each new day brings. His cheerful optimism undoubtedly helped propel him through his fraught infancy. Now, he brings joy to everyone in his orbit. And to think, this little bull is alive today all because of one brave female who took responsibility for him and delivered him into safe hands.