One of the biggest hurdles animals face in the Greater Mara Ecosystem is human-wildlife conflict. Tyler Davis let us know how a new lion-collaring project is helping to address the issue at its root.
The Maasai Mara is exceptional safari destination for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its impressive diversity and density of wildlife. But, as any visitor to the Mara will well know, it’s no zoo – there are no fences keeping the animals “in bounds.” This means the relatively dense (and ever-growing) human population surrounding the reserve must co-exist with the park’s megafauna – including those which are potentially dangerous.
This leads to what is known as “human-wildlife conflict,” sometimes abbreviated HWC – and the communities surrounding Angama, immediately adjacent the reserve, are very familiar with it. HWC can come in many forms, from an annoyance like baboons stealing unattended food, to something much more serious like lions killing livestock, which are the Maasai people’s livelihood.
In the latter case, the Angama Foundation has been supporting the Mara Conservancy’s compensation program by subsidizing the majority of payments for livestock lost to predators within the area – usually surpassing $20,000 per year. This program helps alleviate some of the tension local communities feel towards predators and hopefully prevents any retaliatory measures.
Photograph by Adam Bannister
Recently, the Mara Predator Conservation Programme (MPCP) approached the Angama Foundation with a proposal to try and better understand how and when these livestock predation events happen, with the intention that more understanding and knowledge will inform stakeholders how to prevent such incidents before they occur. The proposal involved collaring two lions in the Mara Triangle that would potentially pose threats to livestock: a female in a pride whose territory is at the edge of the reserve, and a young male soon to disperse from his pride.
The Angama Foundation was happy to provide the funding necessary to purchase two collars for the MPCP to deploy on lions that may be, or have the potential to be, culprits of livestock predation in the communities surrounding us. By better understanding their movements we would find ourselves with a win-win: not only would fewer livelihoods be negatively affected, but the Angama Foundation could redirect compensation funds to other projects benefitting the community. Like with an illness, isn’t it better to prevent it, than to treat the symptoms?
When we received an invitation from MPCP’s Senior Program Scientist, Niels Mogenson, to join a collaring mission this past September, we eagerly accepted – besides doing our due diligence and following up on the projects we support, this was a unique opportunity to observe conservation in action. We set off early in two vehicles to try and locate the target individual: a female within the Angama Pride, whom we know scales the Oloololo Escarpment from time to time to hunt the plateau.
Photographs by Tyler Davis
Luck was on our side – we found the pride in relatively short order, in an area below Angama called Shieni, and tracked them while we waited for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) vet team and representatives from the Mara Conservancy to join us. Dr. Limo, the Mara’s longtime KWS vet, arrived in his customized Sheldrick Wildlife Trust-sponsored Landcruiser with imposing dart gun slung in arm, followed in another vehicle by the Mara Conservancy’s Chief Warden, Alfred Bett, and Administrator, David Aruasa. After a quick brief confirming which lioness of the pride was the target, the team was set.
We watched from about fifty meters away as the muzzle of the dart gun slid out the side of the KWS vehicle. Seconds later a loud PFFT! was followed by a confused and angry growl, the lioness springing up and bounding away with what looked like a highlighter-pink flower sprouting from her haunch. She stopped after about thirty meters, looked around for whatever had stung her bum and, over the course of about fifteen minutes, slowly lay down with head on paws, drifting off into a deep sleep.
Then the team went to work.
Photographs by Tyler Davis
Between the MPCP team and the KWS vets, there was a bustle of respectfully quiet activity: removal of the fluorescent feather-tipped dart, application of antiseptic spray to the dart site, blood sampling, tissue sampling, biometric measurements, sizing and fixing of the collar, a general check-up that revealed a couple small wounds and subsequent application of more green antiseptic spray– even the removal of a few ticks.
It was an impressive example of respectful collaboration in an effort to both care for the animal and prepare it for its involuntary procurement of data valuable to conservation research. For those of us observing, it was also a unique opportunity to experience a wild lion up close: marveling at her claws and teeth, admiring her coarse tawny pelage, and just awe of being in such close proximity with an icon of the African bush.
Once the team was done, we hurried away to our respective vehicles while the lioness was administered with a sedation reversal. After a short time, she somewhat drunkenly stumbled to her feet and slunk away, no doubt wondering what had just happened, but otherwise unencumbered by her new necklace.
Mama Kali’s home territory immediately below Angama Summary of Mama Kali’s movements on a monthly basis
In the months since she’s been collared, Mama Kali (as we now affectionately call her) has both thrived with her pride and already provided some fascinating data. Niels from MPCP has shared with us a summary of her movements on a monthly basis, revealing she ranges far more widely than we originally thought, including overlapping significantly with other prides to the north and south, while also wandering remarkably far outside of the reserve at times. That said, her core home territory is still quite clearly immediately below Angama, which of course we readily welcome. MPCP is still learning from the data and we’re eager to see the ways they can use it prevent future conflicts.
As Mama Kali continues to do as lions do, let us not forget to thank her for her unwitting participation in informing local conservation policies and preventing further human-wildlife conflict. Thank you, Mama Kali!
An accurate estimate of a species population is an essential starting point for conservation efforts and shapes everything from on-the-ground activities to policy decisions and legal protection measures. Nevertheless, attaining and updating these population estimates can be complicated, and scientists are always working on new ways to improve the process. Researchers from the University of Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and Machine Learning Research Group have found a new way to use technology to count elephants – using satellites to spot elephants from space.
Monitoring elephant numbers in Africa is vital, especially since their numbers have been decimated over the past century due to poaching, habitat fragmentation and uncontrolled trophy hunting of large-tusked individuals. Researchers use several different techniques to count elephants depending on the size and logistical realities of an area, including dung and track counts, camera trap grids and aerial surveys. However, all of the current methods are usually time-consuming, labor-intensive, and prohibitively expensive, where large scale aerial surveys are concerned. All of the traditional techniques are also subject to considerable human bias and, potentially, fatigue.
Satellite remote sensing is one of the newest approaches to emerge as a viable monitoring technique in detecting wildlife and has been used in previous research to detect animals in homogenous landscapes and seascapes. It offers several advantages, including the capacity to cover a large area in a short space of time, allowing for regular reassessments. This also reduces the risk of double-counting animals that may move during a count. Furthermore, it removes the risk of human disturbance of the animal entirely.
Both practically and politically, satellite remote sensing can also render previously inaccessible areas accessible and avoids the complex and time-consuming process of applying for permits. It is, however, influenced by the size of the animal and the type of habitat.
The satellites generate enormous quantities of imagery that require processing. If this were to be done manually, it would take researchers months to work through the data and pick out individual elephants. However, through automating the detection process, the process can be completed in a matter of hours.
Biologists have been using machine learning to detect wildlife in several different images, including camera trap images, aerial survey images and unmanned aerial vehicle images. However, before this study, only three species had been detected by satellite using deep learning (an artificial intelligence function that mimics the human brain): albatross, whales, and pack-ice seals.
The study was conducted in Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa and to test the technology, the research team used a training image dataset of 1125 elephants. These images were sourced from the highest resolution satellite imagery currently available – Worldview 3 from Maxar Technologies – and fed into a Convolutional Neural Network (a type of deep learning algorithm). The results were compared to human analysis and confirmed that elephants could be detected in satellite imagery with an accuracy equal to human detection capabilities.
While previous studies have primarily focused on marine species due to their inaccessibility, the results of this research indicate that it is possible to teach a machine to automatically detect elephants in satellite imagery, in both homogenous and complex heterogeneous habitats. The authors of the study believe that these conservation technologies will open a new world of possibilities. This power, say the scientists, should be embraced as a matter of urgency as we barrel through the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s history.
The full report can be accessed here: “Using very-high-resolution satellite imagery and deep learning to detect and count African elephants in heterogeneous landscapes”, Duporge, I., et al., (2020), Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation
As dusk descends over the red sands of South Africa’s Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, her animal choir prepares for another encore-worthy performance at this amazing African Safari destination. First, the barking geckos emerge to set up the staccato rhythmic accompaniment for what is to come. The pennywhistle arpeggios of the pearl-spotted owlet – disproportionately loud for such a small bird – weave through the gracenote “brrps” of the scops owls and trills of the rufous-cheeked nightjars. Waiting patiently in the wings, a lion adds a booming baritone that echoes over the ancient, ephemeral, rivers, setting the stage for the main performance of the evening.
As the sun dips below the horizon, the scenery is bathed in the colors of the Kalahari, and a solitary jackal howls. One by one, its neighbors add their voices to the call and response melody, a haunting, lupine soprano that cuts through the night and raises goosebumps on human skin.
This is the song of the Kgalagadi.
THE KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park covers an enormous 35,551km2 (3.5 million hectares) in the Kalahari Basin, incorporating national parks in South Africa and Botswana. In Botswana’s southwestern corner, the Gemsbok National Park covers nearly three-quarters of the Kgalagadi (28,400km2) while the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park together comprise the South African section in the Northern Cape.
As the oldest transboundary protected area in Africa, the Kgalagadi enjoyed a de facto existence from as early as 1948, when informal agreements between the national parks ensured that the entire ecosystem was holistically managed. However, it was only in 1999 that South Africa and Botswana legally formalised these agreements, and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was officially opened in May 2000. Visitors are free to travel between the two countries within the park without a passport, provided they exit from their original country of entrance.
While the rolling red dunes and Kalahari sandveld plains are spectacularly beautiful, life in the Kgalagadi centers around its two ephemeral rivers: the Nossob and the Auob. The rivers hardly ever flow at surface level; instead, underground water supplies the surrounding camelthorn trees and other vegetation which, in turn, provide essential nutrients to the park’s herbivores at the end of the long dry season.
The Kgalagadi – which possibly translates as ‘the land of thirst’ – is not an appropriate destination for spontaneous exploration or the inadequately prepared visitor. Main camps aside, most of the wilderness camps and campsites offer only basic facilities and little in the way of phone signal. Though there are entrance gates on both the South African and Botswanan sides, most of the park infrastructure and camps are dotted throughout the South African portion of the park. In contrast, the Botswana side is vast and wild. Large distances and limited roads separate campsites with few facilities and no fuel. This section is only accessible with 4X4 vehicles.
Three main or “traditional” camps in the Kgalagadi are equipped with shops and fuel, as well as electricity (though only Twee Rivieren offers 24-hour power). Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Mata Mata are connected by the park’s main roads which are corrugated but accessible to 2X4 vehicles unless there has been unusually high rainfall. These main camps are the hub of park activity, and visitors can book guided drives (including night drives), guided 4X4 trails and walks.
The wilderness camps (powered by solar and gas) and isolated campsites are unfenced, offering an entirely immersive experience free from the trappings and distractions of modern life – including, in some luxurious cases, flushing toilets. As a result, the Kgalagadi is one of the few remaining wild spaces where visitors can lose themselves in nature and revel in the wildlife’s authenticity; especially the ubiquitous, bright-eyed ground squirrels that have learned to capitalize on the generosity (or messiness) of passing campers.
Arid it may be, but the Kalahari ecosystem is a complex web of life well-adapted to extremes. The Kgalagadi itself is probably not suited to first-time safari-goers, particularly not those intent on ticking off the Big 5, because elephant, rhino and buffalo are not present in the park. Nevertheless, the wildlife viewing in the Kgalagadi is exceptional for two main reasons: the profusion of predators and the opportunity to appreciate the underappreciated.
A PREDATOR PROFUSION
Of the 60 or so recorded mammal species in the park, nearly a third of these are predators. For most people, top of the list are the lions of the famed Kalahari black-maned pedigree. The Kgalagadi is considered a vital Lion Conservation Unit (as designated by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group) and it is not uncommon to fall asleep to their roars only to wake up in the morning and discover their tracks crisscrossing the previous night’s braai site. Cheetahs and leopards complete the big cat trifecta, especially during the dry season when the desolate landscape makes it somewhat easier to pick them out at a distance. Russet-colored caracals with their characteristic black ear tufts are relatively common and the Kgalagadi is home to one of the largest (and genetically purest) wildcat populations in Africa.
Of the other large predators, brown hyenas are particularly well-adapted to desert habitats. These shaggy predators patrol the dunes and scrublands in a constant search for their next carcass or moisture-rich tsamma melon. Their spotted cousins are less numerous but more vocal and conspicuous, often wallowing in pans during the heat of the day.
The smaller canid species are some of the Kgalagadi’s most captivating residents. When not serenading each other, black-backed jackals use their canine wiles to eke out a tenuous existence in the inhospitable landscape. Whether they are scrapping over a leftover piece of leathery skin, bravely snatching a morsel of meat from beneath a lion’s nose or launching acrobatic attacks to catch unsuspecting sandgrouse, time spent with jackals is never wasted.
Like the jackals, Cape foxes (also known as silver-backed foxes) can be equally entertaining, particularly for those fortunate to spend time at den sites with young kits, which must surely rank among the world’s cutest baby animals. Unlike the insectivorous bat-eared foxes (which are also present), the Cape fox is the only true fox species in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Kgalagadi experience is one of quality over quantity, and rushing from sighting to sighting is not a recipe for success. Instead, time, patience and attention to detail yield greater rewards to the discerning visitor, especially if it means a few hours spent at one of the waterholes at dusk and dawn.
Even within the confines of the camps themselves, life abounds. The aforementioned ground squirrels are so commonplace that they are often overlooked. Close observation of familiar individuals, however, reveals that they lead complex and intriguing lives. Their habit of using their tails as built-in parasols and charismatic personalities make them extraordinarily endearing. Yet, they are also consummate survivors, and their reflexes are lightning-fast, as this brave mother demonstrated in her battle with a Cape cobra.
From honey badgers, meerkats, and mongooses to elephant shrews, whistling rats and chameleons, appreciating nature in all her glory is the very essence of exploring the Kgalagadi.
JUMPING FOR JOY…
At the risk of repetition, the best wildlife viewing is at the end of the dry season. The animals are forced to congregate around available water resources (particularly the pumped pans), and vegetation is sparse. However, the park is magnificent regardless of the time of year and the transformation effected by the seasons and the arrival of the rain around December is remarkable. Seemingly overnight, the barren, desiccated landscape is revitalized and carpeted in new life’s green flush. As the thunderstorms roll overhead, annual flowers spring up out of nowhere, painting the scenery in flamboyant colors that seem decidedly out of place in a desert.
Herds of blue wildebeest, gemsbok, red hartebeest, and eland congregate in celebration of the rains, migrating within the park to secure the best resources for the birthing season. There is a palpable sense of relief among the animals that survive the savage dry season, and this is particularly apparent in the herds of springbok that seem to jump for joy. Their unique, pronking leaps provide hours of entertainment. While there are solid biological explanations for this behavior (displaying physical fitness to predators and potential mates), to many of us, these antelopes simply seem to be enjoying themselves.
The only luxury lodge in the Kgalagadi is !Xaus Lodge which is found on the border of the southern section of the park, in the !Ae!Hai Heritage Park. This 580km2 section of land was set aside for both the ‡Khomani San and Mier communities, and profits from the lodge are fed back to these communities.
The Kgalagadi is a land of extremes, and visitors should be prepared to face them. At the height of summer, the temperatures soar above 40˚C every day, and the relentless sun beats down on the red sands, lifting temperatures to around 70˚C on the surface. As already mentioned, most of the camps are rudimentary, and few are equipped with fans, let alone air conditioning. By contrast, the temperatures at night in winter can drop to well below freezing and where there is plumbing, it is not unusual to wake to pipes frozen solid. Comprehensive planning and research will ensure that visitors get the most out of the Kgalagadi experience.
A stroll around the campsite at night with a UV light will reveal the scorpions emerging to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. This, combined with regular snake sightings, should be sufficient to convince even the most experienced camper to wear sensible footwear at night and carry a powerful flashlight.
While not the most luxurious safari experience in Africa, the uncomplicated approach to exploring nature in the Kgalagadi, gives visitors the most intimate immersion possible. Without light pollution, the stars positively blaze overhead and without the day-to-day hum of electronics that we take for granted, every natural sound is amplified. The absence of interruption and interference provides the perfect wilderness escape – a balm for the soul that is as refreshing as the arrival of the first rains.
If you are looking for a bit of an extra kick in your hot beverage with a bit more of an exotic flair, South Africa’s Kapama shares a delightful and traditional twist to your standard milo or hot chocolate.
Kapama Karula is famous for creating interesting and unique beverages for its diverse guests visiting the Lodge from all around the world. A big part of travelling to a faraway destination is enjoying the culture and an array of local cuisines, drinks and traditions. This can even include a “Winter Warmer” drink like Café Amarint.
Kapama Karula’s Executive chef Mahki Maki shares his secret.
Enjoy a “Springbokkie” shooter with your Milo and Espresso. Springbokkie is a traditional South Africa shooter. The Springbokkie is made from peppermint liqueur and Amarula Cream. Amarula is a true South African success story. It is made from the fruit of the Marula trees, which only grows along Africa’s subequatorial plains and there is only one time of the year when female trees bear fruit. This exotic fruit has four times more vitamin C than the average orange and there is evidence that Marula fruit can be traced as far back at the 10 000 BC.
The reason why this shooter is called the Sprinkgbokkie is that the Green and “Gold” represent the colors of the South African National Rugby Team: The Sprinkboks.
Here it is – Hope you enjoy!
Ingredients for Milo espresso
4 teaspoons Milo powder
200ml Hot water
Milk for froth
Milo Powder for topping
In your favorite mug add the Milo powder
Add the hot water and stir to completely dissolve the Milo powder
Add the single Espresso to the Milo mixture
Froth some milk and top up as desired
Sprinkle some Milo powder on top
Ingredients for “Springbokkie”
25ml Peppermint Liqueur
25ml Amarula Liqueur
Known as the “Springbokkie” in South Africa
In a shot glass pour the Peppermint Liqueur
Layer Amarula Liqueur on top
Enjoy a Café Amarint by pouring the “Springbokkie” into the Milo espresso and give it a quick stir to combine.
Served with some skewered grilled marshmallows
Scientists have discovered a new contender for the title of world’s smallest reptile: a minute Madagascan chameleon species that can balance comfortably on the tip of a finger. The newly described Brookesia nana male has a body length of just 13.5mm and overall length of 22mm (including the tail). It is the smallest known adult male reptile species. Astonishingly the male’s genitals make up 18.5% of its body length.
The tiny chameleon was discovered by a joint team of German and Malagasy scientists on an expedition to northern Madagascar in 2012. Extreme miniaturization is relatively common in Madagascar, home to some of the smallest primates, frogs, and chameleons.
The B. nana specimens were collected in a degraded montane rainforest where they spend their days hunting for mites and springtails on the forest floor. At night, the chameleon hides on grass blades. Despite the scientists’ extensive efforts, the team could only find two specimens – a female and a male. The female is slightly larger, usually the case with smaller chameleon species.
One of the most critical tasks was to confirm whether the specimens were mature adults or juveniles. Micro-CT scans of the female revealed two developing eggs, confirming her maturity, but the process for the male was somewhat more complicated. As male chameleons mature, their reproductive structures, termed ‘hemipenes’, change, becoming more intricate. In this case, the male’s hemipenes were sufficiently well-developed for scientists to conclude that he had reached maturity.
The explanation behind the extraordinary size of male genitals most likely lies with the reversed sexual size dimorphism in smaller chameleons. The outsized hemipenes ensure a better mechanical fit during mating.
Of further interest to scientists is just how small complex vertebrates can get, as many of the tiny frog, gecko and chameleon species seem to converge around a similar size. The Brookesia genus (the Madagascan dwarf or leaf chameleons) all demonstrate similar reduction of particular body parts and a lack of head ornaments such as crests or cones. Though there are several theories, the reason the miniature chameleons of Brookesia are as small as they are remains a mystery.
Equally unknown at this point is just how many of the newly discovered B. nana chameleons exist in the wild and whether or not their populations are sustainable. Other members of the genus have a limited distribution, and all are threatened to some extent by habitat loss. While Madagascar is home to around half the world’s chameleon species, it is estimated that less than 10% of island’s forests remain. Of the Madagascan chameleons, 52% are threatened, and 70% are considered threatened or near-threatened. Fortunately, the tiny, new chameleons live in a newly proclaimed protected area ‘Resérve de Ressources Naturelles du Corridor Marojejy-Anjanaharibe Sud-Tsaratanàna partie Nord’, thankfully abbreviated to COMATSA Nord. However, the report recommends that B. nana be classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List.
“Unfortunately, the habitat of the nano-chameleon is under heavy pressure from deforestation, but the area has recently been designated as a protected area, and hopefully that will enable this tiny new chameleon to survive,” says Oliver Hawlitschek from the Centrum für Naturkunde in Hamburg.
Read the full report here: “Extreme miniaturisation of a new amniote vertebrate and insights into the evolution of genital size in chameleons“, Glaw, F., et al. (2021), Scientific Reports
As the weather begins to warm up, Kenya’s famous Masai Mara continues to enthrall in new ways and boast the incredible wildlife that awaits safari goers again!
Dare I say it, but is seems as if the rain has abated. Well, for the moment at least. Daily temperatures are rising, the skies are clearing, and the grass is quickly transforming before our very eyes – from verdant green into a gorgeous gold.
Dawn breaks in the Maasai Mara
A lone giraffe bull strides across the clearing in search of his next meal
The longer grass forces oneself to think out of the box. As I wrote in a blog story earlier this week, this is a time of year when the Mara landscape literally glistens with beauty.
Catching a little shut eye, having been out patrolling and marauding all night
Ten points if you can guess which species this is?
It also forces guides to drive a little slower, to look a little more carefully, and in doing so we often find ourselves appreciating the smaller animals and the subtle stories taking place within the reserve.
Birds of all shapes and sizes continue to thrive in the Mara ecosystem
I frequently write about what is required to photograph an ecosystem week in and week out, to use local knowledge and experience to predict animal movements and behavior, but to constantly use fresh eyes in the process. I strive to do justice to the Mara in my imagery and use each of these blogs as a blank canvas to convey new stories and fresh insights.
This week brought an abundance of animal sightings in the Mara Triangle
Topi are at the height of excitement right now. The males are busily establishing short-lived territories, attempting to gather females together into a harem. Soon, it will be time to mate so come late October the females all give birth en masse. At camp we have a small group of zebra that have become permanent residents. We call them ‘non-paying guests’ and we love them dearly. Above, one poses for me at the entrance to the swimming pool.
Hyena continue to torment the buffalo population in the Mara
I watched a clan of 15 hyenas continually harass this specific group of buffalo. They were attempting to separate the various new born calves from their protective mothers. We believe that as much as 95% of all hyena meals come from their own hunts, and not from scavenging, as is often erroneously believed.
The Egyptian Pride rest at Egyptian Dam
The Egyptian Pride continue to ‘camp-out’ at Egyptian Dam. The seven cubs are growing up fast and we are all excited at the mouth-watering prospects for this family of lions.
The Elephants in the Mara are not only abundant, but incredibly relaxed too
One of the jewels of the Mara Triangle is its elephant population. Not only are there elephants just about everywhere you look, but they are generally very relaxed, allowing for peaceful, gentle viewing.
The Mara beats to its own rhythm. We are merely spectators, but dig a little bit deeper, invest the hours, and you will be richly rewarded.
A male Southern ground hornbill with a range of treats for his mate and fledgling nesting nearby
The sighting of the week, for me, was of this male southern ground hornbill, walking alongside the road. In his bill he had not just one, but two, small puff adders, a rat and a grasshopper! We know that his nest is located in a large tree not too far away, and inside that nest is his flightless mate, and his nearly fledged single chick. What a remarkable father. We can’t wait to see more from this lovely little family.
BY ADAM BANNISTER
Once they have outgrown the Sheldrick Trust’s Nairobi Nursery, the orphaned elephants begin the next exciting chapter of their lives in the wilds of Kenya.
At the heart of the Africa’s Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s conservation activities is the Orphans’ Project, which has achieved worldwide acclaim through its hugely successful elephant rescue and rehabilitation programmed.
Like many other countries in Africa, and across the world, Kenya is tackling challenges like habitat destruction, human-wildlife conflict and poaching. The Sheldrick Trust, founded in 1977, is a pioneering conservation organization, dedicated to the protection of wildlife and the preservation of habitats in East Africa.
Many will be familiar with the animal orphanage on the outskirts of the Nairobi National Park. It is here where the rescued orphaned elephants are initially housed. Selfless keepers take on the role of foster parents and look after these often very traumatized young elephants. It is possible to visit the orphanage year-round and anyone passing through Nairobi should consider adding it to their itinerary.
However, at the very core of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s work lies the intent of reintroducing these orphaned elephants back into the wild. The orphans are gradually reintroduced to a more normal life whilst being at the Nairobi shelter, but eventually they get too big for the facility and the next exciting phase of their lives begins.
Established in 2004, the Ithumba Reintegration Unit was built in the extremely remote northern sector of Tsavo East National Park. Once elephants reach the age of three, they are no longer able to be housed in Nairobi and so they travel down to Ithumba. Here the slow process of ‘rewilding’ takes place.
At night, the elephants are housed in secure enclosures – largely to protect them from predators such as lion, which many of them would have yet to encounter.
Every morning at first light, the elephants are hand-fed milk by their keepers. Once they have drank a few litres they are grouped into smaller units of three or four individuals. A keeper will then walk with them out into the wild. The keeper’s role is to lead the walks and to keep a watchful eye over the orphans.
It is incredible to watch these men walking through the vegetation with their small extended family of pachyderms. They will be with these specific individuals for years and years. There can honestly be no greater ‘silent heroes’ in my opinion than these men.
Like clockwork, 11 am hits and the elephants know that it is time for the midday feed and playtime. The smaller units all group together for an hour of social interaction and wallowing.
In the heat of the day, head keeper Benjamin is out with the elephants as they frolic in the water. He takes notes and photographs each elephant every day. What stories he could tell? What connections with the animal world he must have.
After the midday play session, they regroup into their smaller units and are led in various directions. The keepers will choose different areas in an attempt to get the elephants as used to the landscape as possible.
At 5pm the elephants are walked back to the main enclosure. It is the most surreal experience to see them walking in single-file behind their beloved human friend.
Once back in their enclosure, there is still time for drinking and feeding and some more socializing – and it will all be repeated tomorrow.
This process will take place every single day for about five or six years, at which point an orphan, or a group of orphans, will decide that they no longer want to return to their night enclosure. An elephant will make the decision that it is ready for the big open wilderness and it will leave. I asked Benjamin to try explain this moment to me; he struggled. I could see in his eyes that the moment an elephant decided it no longer needed a human’s help, was the greatest achievement for the team, but also the saddest moment.
I cannot imagine the bonds that they must forge together over the years, nor the mix of emotions felt when an elephant doesn’t return. Incredibly, like out of a fairy-tale, these orphaned elephants often return years later, to reacquaint with their old guardians, and sometimes even to introduce their old human keepers to their wild-born calves.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit this unit and to spend time with elephants and their keepers. This portion of Tsavo East is remote and beautiful. By opening up the experience to guests, Sheldrick have provided the opportunity for guests to truly get up close and personal with the elephants and to absorb as much as possible from this encounter.
BY ADAM BANNISTER