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Jambo Bwana 7: A Week with Elephants


Monday, June 27
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

We wake up at 5:20am, which gives us just barely enough time to throw our clothes on and make it to the trucks leaving at 5:45 for the 15-minute drive out to the relocation unit. It’s just before dawn, still pretty dark, and as we near the top of the hill where the watering hole and stockade are located, we notice large, very large, slowly moving forms and shadows in the misty, gathering light. As my eyes become accustomed, I realize it’s a herd of elephants. Big, wild elephants of all sizes. They are here, it seems, to hydrate at the two water holes and greet the orphans as they are released for the day. We spend some time watching them in the gathering light before and after the orphans are let out of their enclosures. The sun rises soon after six, and we begin to see more clearly a large number of variously sized elephants scattered among the two water holes. (A video of the scene is here.)

Some of the elephants are wild, some ex-orphans who have returned to the wild, and after some kibbutzing around the water holes and the hay strewn near the stockade, the orphans and ex-orphans and wild elephants head out for the day together, accompanied by the keepers, who walk with them. They will wind up at about 11 a.m. at the mud and watering hole a few miles south and then back to the enclosures at 5 p.m. for the night. The elephants spend the rest of the day roaming, grazing and learning from the others how to survive in the wild.

Benjamin Kyalo is project manager of the Ithumba Orphan’s Unit, and he explains the process that allows the elephants themselves to decide when they want to leave for the wild herd. We will spend the next three days watching these incredible stories unfold under Benjamin’s expert direction.

We get our first view of a baby named Wiva. She was born to Wendi on October 15, which makes her eight months old. Wendi was brought to the Trust as a newborn left for dead in the Imenti Forest in 2002 and was hand-reared at the nursery in Nairobi. After coming to Ithumba, she made the transition and is now one of about 30 ex-orphans who remain in the area and are now part of the wild herd. Watch a video of Wiva and her guardians here.

Wendi is an elephant raised completely in captivity but now free, and she remembers the keepers who raised her and is friendly with them, even with the baby around. Elephants love baby elephants, and Wiva is tended by at least five other females, but we are introduced to Wendi right away, because Wiva is looking for mama’s milk. We will see them many times in the next few days. Geoffrey points out two wild dogs at the edges of the elephant gathering, but neither Billie nor I can see them.

Up close, we can see and feel their bodies, hard yet somehow soft, too, and built to hold together their weight and withstand the rigors of the Kenyan outback. We can also observe up close the temporal glands behind their eyes, which secrete chemicals that we don’t fully understand yet but we are learning that it has to do with their emotions.

The mudhole at Ithumba was used by all the elephants at one time or another.

Their ears are almost paper thin, and the skin behind them extremely soft. One stops over to show us her trunk and how cool it is. We can also hear their deep, rumbling voices. Elephant researcher Dr. Joyce Poole has observed that “greeting rumbles or bonding rumbles, in particular, show an extreme range in the frequency of calls.” And many of their rumblings are too low in frequency for humans to hear. Elephants have also been found to “hear” rumbles from long distances through vibrations they feel in their feet.

There are probably 30 or 40 elephants here, and the big ones soon head over for the lucerne next to the stockade. It is meant for the young ones, but today the bigger elephants push them out of the way, grabbing huge chunks for themselves and taking off to munch without interruption. Soon, they are heading off down the road in small groups before disappearing behind a ridge, and we climb back in the trucks for the drive back for breakfast.

Lois stops in to gauge how things are going, and we have a great conversation. We are delighted and completely comfortable with the way things are transpiring. Breakfast includes eggs over easy with bacon, alongside cereals and fresh fruits, juices and coffee. We sit and watch some wildlife coming through the camp until 11 a.m., when we are driven out to where some of the wild elephants are again waiting for the orphans at the mud hole.

The water trucks were busy every day at the various waterholes.

Tsavo East is pretty dry, and it’s winter, so the Trust has built stone water holes for the elephants around the area. They need to be cleaned and refilled, often more than once a day, and the Trust keeps them serviced with a truck that drives up to the water hole right into a herd of larger males. The elephants are obviously used to this, and they stand around waiting. The water truck is a constant companion here, either at one of the water holes or at the stockade or heading between them. The wild elephants are patient as the attendant fills up the holes.

We spend an hour just watching. The mud hole here is much larger than the one at Umani Springs, and there is elephant action everywhere: The mud hole is a pond with maybe a twenty-yard circumference and mud all around it, and elephants are splashing and throwing mud everywhere. At one point, the young orphans are coming in for their bottles stage right while the big males stand at left at the water hole silently gazing over at us.

It’s an amazing scene, the elephants throwing gray sludge on their backs until they turn a darker shade of grey. There is a kind of pecking order going on, with elephants waiting for others in some cases and not in others. At certain points it seems that some of the larger elephants are holding a class in mud slinging for the orphans to show them how it’s really done.

One friendly elephant, taller than we are, comes right over to us. He’s an ex-orphan and friend of Benjamin, who’s also standing with us, and this male elephant is checking us out with his trunk and talking with Benjamin while larger males eye us warily from about thirty feet away and another line of elephants passes just beyond us. There are literally elephants everywhere, and I am deliriously happy.

A busload of Kenyan schoolchildren in their blue outfits is standing around the orphans, and some of the more adventurous ones get to feed the young orphans their bottles. Education at a young age is an important part of the Kenyan conservation effort, and I wonder to myself how many of these children’s families might be involved in poaching, or which of these kids might become poachers themselves, given the right economic circumstances. It’s a vicious cycle, and I find it hard to blame the local Kenyans hired to kill elephants for ivory, none of whom are the main beneficiaries of the wealth that comes from those tusks. (Watch the mudhole scene here.) On our way back to the compound, we pass a jeep with six rangers, all armed with machine guns, just another reminder that we are not in Disneyland and the elephants here are not necessarily safe.

Later in the afternoon, back at the stockade watching the young ones coming back in, I ask Benjamin if any keeper has ever been hurt by an elephant, and he says no. Elephants always announce their intent before charging, he says. And the keepers learn each of their vocal mannerisms so they can tell if an elephant is expressing pleasure or displeasure. Elephants, he adds, are smart and observant enough to know which humans to trust and which to avoid. Obviously, they trust this man.

Wiva is a wild elephant born of Wendi, a Sheldrick orphan who returned to the wild.

A group of twelve comes walking in, a reddish stain running along parts of their backs. Six head right into the stockade for their bottles, and the keepers direct the others, probably ex-orphans, out to the water holes. I spend some time just watching one of them drink. I love the way the trunk can just suck up water and then deposit it in her mouth or anywhere else she wishes. One of the keepers says that larger elephants can take in up to five liters of water at a time into their trunks. He sucks the liquid into his trunk, then lets it rise above him, drops it into his mouth and then dips back down into the water. Very elegant.

Besides the milk formula and acacia bark, pellets form a big part of the orphan diet. I think they’re made of alfalfa, too, and they seem to be the same or similar to the ones we let the giraffes take out of our mouths or that horses eat in the states. The elephants love these little pellets. I spent a lot of time just watching them eat every last one they can get their trunk on. It’s time-consuming to keep grabbing one or two at a time, but they don’t seem to mind. This afternoon, one orphan moves quickly to chase another one off some pellets – she isn’t nice about this – before a keeper brings calm to the situation. God, do these ellies love their pellets. Watch as two argue over them.

And as I’m caught up watching one of them scrounge up the pellets, another one outside the compound comes up behind me waving his trunk. The others warn me of his approach, but I’m standing right next to a road grader, and with two steps I’m behind it in time to get a movie of the waving trunk before a keeper comes up and restores order by moving him toward the water hole. Hard to say for sure, but he seems a little pissed.

Later, the wild elephants move away from the water hole, and a lone baboon and a couple of warthogs take their turns, watching carefully and purposely in all directions each time before dipping their heads into the hole.

I wind up sitting and talking with Mondaii and Geoffrey about Trump – they can’t believe him, either — and about how much they want to come to America. Mondaii would like to see his youngest daughter, now five, have the chance to be educated here. Geoffrey doesn’t have a specific reason, but he wants to see what America is all about. Most of what they know is what they see on television.

On our way back to dinner, Mondaii drives us over to the water hole, where a couple of wild elephants are throwing water and mud over themselves as the sun is setting. It’s completely quiet, the only sound is the water falling around their shoulders in the fading light. A warthog behind them on the far shore completes the picture.

As we sit up on the balcony looking over Tsavo East with a glass of Amarula, it’s dawning on me the scope of what we are seeing. What a day.

Our stay at Ithumba continues here. Watch more videos of the elephants here.

1 comment

1 Jambo Bwana 6: A Week with Elephants — Jukebox in My Head { 06.22.17 at 6:56 am }

[...] stay at Ithumba Camp continues here. Watch videos of our Kenya trip [...]

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