Encounters with Elephants in Tsavo East

‘Look out!’ Jan yelled. I turned, just in time to jump sideways to avoid a young elephant on a determined trot to the waterhole where his friends were enjoying a communal mud bath.

It was my own fault. There were elephants converging on the waterhole from all directions. I wasn’t paying enough attention. We stopped counting after 50; there must have been at least 80 – 24 of them orphans from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust stockades at Ithumba, in the far north of Tsavo East National Park.

We were spending a weekend camping and, as ‘foster parents’ of a few of the orphaned elephants, we had got permission from the Trust to visit their release project in Tsavo. They had told us that this would be an adventure for the intrepid.

Yes. But the most intrepid aspect of our safari there was driving the 180kms of the Mombasa Road from Nairobi to Kibwezi. But we certainly relished the last 98kms of the murrum road from Kibwezi – and especially the smooth sandy track through the park to where we were camping.

In these north-western parts of Tsavo East the vegetation is mostly dense scrub and so, apart from sightings of elephants and occasional glimpses of dik-dik, we did not expect to see much game. But on our first morning drive from our camp to the stockades we saw a young leopard on the road.

Then, on the way back we followed for about thirty minutes three female wild dogs – the painted wolves of Africa – out on a morning hunt along the road. They moved at a consistent steady pace, not bothered at all by our following them at an unobtrusive distance.

Where we were staying there were a couple of small water holes, and the animals came to us. At breakfast one morning a lesser kudu (What an undeserved name for such a graceful animal?) did a stately walk across the grass. In the evening, a couple of jackals made a futile dash after a nimble flock of Guinea fowl.

At night we set a camera trap by one of the waterholes. When we checked it in the morning it showed that the hole had been visited by, as well as (presumably) the same two jackals and the lesser kudu, two striped hyenas, a civet – and a Verreaux’s eagle owl.

Each day we caught up with the orphan elephants three times. At dawn we took a short drive to the stockades to see them take their milk and greenery breakfast, before being led out by their keepers for a day in the bush.

At 11am we went to the waterhole where, after another drink of milk, the orphans enjoyed covering themselves with mud before drinking at a trough filled with water drawn from the Tiva River. And this was where more than 50 wild elephants joined in the mud fun and drinking at the trough.

Then at 5pm we returned to the stockades to see the young elephants return for the night. All this was a special thrill for our friends from the UK. They were able to see five of the ten Sheldrick elephants they are fostering as a family: Teleki, Sokotei, Garzi, Lemoiyan and Roi.

The DSWT elephant rehabilitation project is a wonderful, and deservedly world famous, conservation initiative. You will most likely know about their ‘phase one’ elephant orphanage along the Magadi Road and adjacent to the Nairobi National Park. They take in and care for young elephants orphaned by poachers, abandoned or badly injured. It was established by Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her husband, David, who was the founding Warden of Tsavo National Park. It is open daily for visitors at 11am. It has become one of the most popular places on the Kenya tourist circuit – and it is increasingly popular with local families.

The project in Tsavo East is one of the places for the second – and very delicate – rehabilitation phase. Here, alongside the care regime – where they are gradually weaned off the special formula milk – they are taken on daily walks through the bush by their keepers. And they are encouraged to interact with the wild elephants – some of them ex-Sheldrick orphans.

It takes a great deal of care on the part of the keepers. And it takes time. But, eventually, they take off and integrate with a wild herd. We saw something of this process. Young Teleki was clearly keen to mix with the wild big bull elephants which came to the waterhole. But they ignored him. So, at last, he turned to catch up with his fellow orphans. It wasn’t yet his time.

To visit the project in East Tsavo you need to be a foster parent of one of the orphan elephants – and the cost of fostering is $50. If you are interested, then I suggest you make contact with the Trust.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation