Saving Shaba: how to rescue an orphaned elephant


Ryan Wilkie, Nelson Mwangi, and Lydia Limbe, The Guardian

Date Published

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On 4 November 2016, David Daballen, Save The Elephants’ head of field operations, got a call from the Kenya Wildlife Service to say that an elephant had been shot to the east of Shaba National Reserve. The team rushed to the scene and found the carcass of Rozz, one of the organisation’s known elephants, with a bullet hole that went through the ear and into the head.

“It was clear from the shot that the aim was to kill. We still do not know why Rozz was killed because her tusks were intact,” said Daballen. The Save the Elephants (STE) research team knew that Rozz was from a family known as the Poetics, and had two daughters, a six-year-old and an 18 month-old calf. It took them two days to locate the orphans, finally chancing on them during a routine mission to the neighbouring Buffalo Springs National Reserve. The daughters were spotted heading toward where Rozz spent her final hours.

The team tried to intercept them and push them back to their family where they would be safer, but they seemed determined to head back to where their mother lay. The elder of the two put herself between the vehicle and her baby sister in a protective stance as they continued on their course, dodging herders and their livestock. Elephant calves are milk dependent up to three years, and there was concern about the youngest’s survival.

The Kenya Wildlife Service vet made the decision to rescue the calf, and a second team was called in to follow the two orphans as they pressed toward Shaba. The rest of the team arranged for a vet to come in and dart the younger female to be transported to a nearby orphanage. It was not easy to keep track of Rozz’s daughters. They crossed an impassable rocky and dense terrain, forcing the second team to loop around this area. It took a two-hour wait in the scorching sun before Benjamin Loloju, a young researcher with STE, spotted them. Ten minutes later, the STE team and the vet flew in on a helicopter.

Unfortunately, the noise startled the young elephants and they disappeared into the thicket. The team then divided into three. Daballen led a search party on foot. Jerenimo Leperei, STE’s research assistant, took the rest of the team in the research vehicle, while those in the helicopter did an aerial search. It was Daballen who caught sight of their fresh tracks and alerted the rest of the team. The helicopter team sighted the orphans, and the vet darted the youngest one. In the melee, the elder sister ran toward her family in Buffalo Springs.

“Although the little one was only a year and a half old it still weighed almost half a tonne, and it took the combined effort of around 10 of us placed around the elephant to get some ropes and a tarpaulin under it and eventually lift her, head first, into the helicopter,” said Ryan Wilkie, an STE intern. “With some difficulty we manoeuvered the infant into the helicopter until just her legs were poking out of the side. She was too big to fit her whole body in. Thinking quickly we removed the doors on the side of the helicopter and strapped the little elephant in, silently praying that the ropes would hold and she wouldn’t wake up. With only room left for the pilot and the vet, the rest of us cleared the area and watched the helicopter take off.” The orphan was airlifted to the community-run Reteti Elephant Sanctuary and was named Shaba.

Reteti is situated in the remote Mathews Range, among Kenya’s second largest elephant population. It takes in orphaned and abandoned calves with the aim of releasing them back into the wild herds adjoining the sanctuary. This is the result of a widely recognised and expanding grassroots movement of community-driven conservation across northern Kenya; a movement that is growing new economies, transforming lives and conserving natural resources.

When the STE team visited Shaba at the orphanage a few days later, she was in the company of a three-week-old calf that had been recently rescued from a well, abandoned by its mother, who was forced to leave the area known for historical conflicts. “Almost a week after the rescue mission, we followed a GPS collar to find out where the Poetics were, specifically to check on Rozz’s six-year-old . We found them in Buffalo Springs, and hidden in the back of the family was the orphan!” said Nelson Mwangi, an STE intern.