The Story of Tomboi, the orphaned baby elephant in Samburu


by Carter D. Ong, Donor Relations Officer

Date Published

 On Friday December 13th 2002 I traveled to Samburu with Laurence for an end of the year bash for Save the Elephants and Elephant Watch Safaris. Often very interesting things happen there but Saturday December 14th was without a doubt one of the most memorable days I have ever had.

In the morning we heard Iain on the radio saying that they had found an abandoned elephant calf and that they were desperately searching for its mother. George was certain who the calf was and had just seen him with her the day before. He was born on the 2nd of December and his mother’s name is Temperance from the Virtue Family. She is approximately 10 years old and a first time mother, and her own mother, Purity, had recently died. I had just returned to my tent when I looked up and saw my colleague Daniel walk into camp with a week old baby elephant at his side. I have never seen a sweeter or more unusual sight. They walked right to my tent where I was able to greet him for the first time. He did not hesitate and raised his trunk to say hello.

I instantly fell in love with this little orphan. We took him through camp where he proceeded to greet everyone there. We named him Tomboi, which is a Samburu name for boy with no family, and Endurance, which is his Virtue family name. Tomboi was terribly scratched up and dehydrated. He had thorns in his feet and a very deep wound on his cheek that was going septic. He was recovered by the rangers early in the morning who heard him crying out near their post. The rangers followed his tracks and found where the family had crossed the river and left him behind. There were gunshots during the night from a nearby village that might also have panicked the herd and caused the baby to become separated.

The wound on his cheek, when examined later, appeared to be a tusk wound. We can only speculate that he met up with another herd during the night but was aggressively rejected and tusked at that time. It is amazing that he survived the night alone since we had heard about four lions calling throughout the night as well. We took him into the research center where we could keep him out of the sun and keep an eye on him. Daniel, Laurence and I watched him for about 3 hours while Iain and George were searching for his family in Iain’s plane. He never stopped moving and constantly tried to find milk. He sucked on our thumbs, which kept him occupied for a few minutes at a time.

We tried to give him water but he found it too difficult to drink it from a bucket. Baby elephants do not learn how to drink water until they are about 6 months old. We poured water on him to cool him and found that he like to keep walking. He followed us around the research center for hours. He had an incredibly gentle and trusting disposition. George and Iain returned by about 11:30am and told us that they found the herd about 12 kilometres south of the reserve but unfortunately, the mother was not with them. The mother’s sister Chastity was in the herd and had a baby of her own and there were other lactating females. This was his only chance.

We would try and re-introduce him to his herd and hope that his aunt would care for him until his mother returned. We knew that there was a risk of him being rejected, but we had to try. If it didn’t work, and he survived the attempted re-introduction, then we would have to collect him and put him on a plane to Nairobi to go Daphne Sheldrick’s elephant orphanage. We gathered our strength and our wits and devised a plan to get him into the truck in order to drive him to his family. We put four mattresses in the back of the truck; put a blanket over his eyes and five men climbed in the back to restrain him.

Fortunately, once he was on his side in the truck he did not struggle too much and even managed to sleep for the first time since we found him. At this point he was terribly stressed as well as tired and thirsty. Three of our vehicles drove out of the reserve towards Il Ingwezi to find his herd. It was a long and bumpy ride but we finally managed to find them. We all took deep breaths and released him out of the car when the herd was about 30 metres from us. He instantly saw the elephants and ran straight for them in utter desperation. His tail was extended and his ears were flapping. The matriarch raised her head and came towards him to inspect him. This was the moment that we are all waiting for. Would she accept him or not? Would he survive this encounter or not?

There was so much commotion among the herd when they saw this tiny baby coming at them. The elephants were screaming and trumpeting and starting to back away. As he made contact with the matriarch and she scented him she stopped dead in her tracks and began reversing and retreating. Tomboi was persistent and continued to chase after her running for his life. Tears filled my eyes as I watched this interaction. I was desperate for him to be accepted and it was looking grim. We all jumped in our cars and pushed off a bit to let them interact and react without us there to distract in any way. Iain and George went closer to the herd to observe what was happening.

Our vehicle lost visual on the herd but they were able to see and reported over the radio that they seemed to have accepted him. We would not know for certain that he would be looked after properly for a long time and thought that we would return in the morning and see how he was doing. The two other cars left and Laurence, Daniel and I joined Iain and George in their car. We decided that we would stay and observe the behaviour but we had lost them at this point because we did not want to disturb them. After some time passed we went to find the herd again. We could still here them rumbling in the distance. The terrain was full of volcanic rock and difficult to drive on. We had not spotted them yet as we crept at a slow pace and then we saw Tomboi all alone.

My heart sank. The herd had left him and he was all on his own again, this time even more exhausted and hungry and abandoned for the second time. When he saw our car he came running over to us since we were now his only family. We got out of the car and he greeted us once again with enthusiasm. I was so heartbroken that this little survivor was going to have to be airlifted out of Samburu and taken to Nairobi. I reminded myself that it could be worse. He was lucky to still be alive after the trauma that he had been through. We sent a radio message to camp to call Daphne Sheldrick and have her send a plane and milk formula up to Samburu immediately. Thankfully she had a plane on standby because she had been briefed about the orphan in the morning.

It was late afternoon so we did not have much time on our hands. We new that he had to go and that we had run out of options. We had to get him to the airstrip within the next two hours. We decided that it would be much nicer for him to walk rather then climb in the truck again. He seemed much more comforted walking so George, Daniel, a ranger and I started walking with him through the bush towards the airstrip which was probably about 15 kilometres north of us. This was one of the most special experiences I have had in my life. It was as if we were an elephant herd. We walked in a single file line and he happily followed along. Iain and Laurence went ahead of us to get to a high point in order to radio camp again and check on the plane. We were all on our own walking through some of the most unspoiled bush in all of Kenya. We were, of course, quite aware that we would be in grave danger if we came across any elephants, or buffalo or lions for that matter.

We were most concerned about coming across elephants because they could react very aggressively towards us. At one stage we came across a mud hole in the road and we showed it to Tomboi. He was absolutely delighted. We put mud all over him to cool him and tried to get him to drink. He basically did a head plant into the muddy water and began to drink. He is too young to know what to do with his trunk so we had to hold it out of the water for him like a snorkel. He was so determined and had incredible perseverance. After his mudbath and drink he let us know that he was ready to continue. We were now in very thick bush without much visibility and heard some elephants trumpeting to the east of us. The sound was fairly far away but this certainly quickened our pace. Iain came on the radio and told us that he and Laurence had seen about twenty elephants coming down from the hills towards our direction. Fortunately, we never ran into them…or buffalo or lions!

Tomboi was really on his last legs and was suffering from exhaustion so we stopped in some shade and finally convinced him to lie down. He collapsed on his side and slept. We called the car back and got some water again. We poured it on him and made sure his ears were wet. He had overheated. He slept there for about 25 minutes and cooled down considerably. We were ready to put him in the car for the last 5 kilometres but he seemed ready to go again and we did not want to stress him unnecessarily by a car ride. We gave him water from a jerican and he finally learned how to drink fro the bottle. He drank many litters. This and his little nap revived him and we were off again, letting him set the pace as we had down before. We walked in total about an hour and a half with Tomboi until he really had reached the end of his rope.

We called the car back again and loaded him into the back to take him the last few kilometers to the airstrip. Once we were there we got him out and walked with him there. We gave him more water, which he was getting better and better at drinking, and waited for the plane to arrive from Nairobi. We were all sad that he would be leaving us is just a few minutes but happy knowing that we tried our best. While he was at the airstrip he was busy greeting all of the new people there that he had not met yet and made quite an impression on the Samburu people there. The plane finally arrived at about 5:45pm, leaving only 15 minutes on the ground before they had to take off to make in to Nairobi before dark. Two of Daphne’s elephant keeper’s got out of the plane and greeted Tomboi.

They had special milk in a Tusker beer bottle with a long nipple on it. After only two or three attempts, Tomboi figured out the latest device and drank three bottles of milk. We quickly gave them a briefing on what had happened and then they loaded him into the small 206 plane and off he went to Nairobi. It was so sad to see this tiny two week old elephant fly out of Samburu after all of his hard work. He deserved to live and we all wished that he could remain in Samburu. Thankfully there is a place that takes in young elephants and knows how to look after him.

Daphne Sheldrick has a unique outfit, the only elephant orphanage in Africa. Once he grows up a bit he will most likely be taken to Tsavo and be released with Daphne’s herd of orphaned elephants. Laurence and I returned from Samburu and I went to visit him on Monday morning at the orphanage. He was given a lot of antibiotics and had eaten and slept a lot. He looks well and is attached to the keepers there already. As I have already said before, he is a survivor so I think that he will do just fine. I am already looking forward to seeing him as a grown bull in Tsavo. We will miss Tomboi!