After nine long hours across paved and dirt roads, Nkala and Muchichili tentatively emerged from the transport containers into the boma at the Kafue Release Facility.
This is a very different place than the elephant nursery at Lilayi, where they had received excellent care. The ten elephants in the release herd were on their afternoon walk with their keepers, allowing Nkala and Muchi the chance to settle into their stable for the night. Their keepers bottle fed them on their usual schedule every two hours and in the morning they were ready to be introduced to the herd. Wearing our green dust coats, we all stood at a distance to observe their interactions.
There were a few tense moments as we watched Chamilandu, the de facto matriarch of the herd of older orphans, approach the new comers. How would Nkala and Muchi react? Would they be respectful and submissive, or would they challenge this new situation? These first interactions are very telling.
There was a collective sigh of relief followed by quiet jubilation as both young elephants acknowledged this new matriarch as she investigated them with her trunk. It was the most amazing sight. She acted particularly motherly toward Muchi, the smallest, pulling him between her legs as she would her own calf.
The social nature of elephants and their complex relationships are remarkable. We watched to see Musolole and Zambezi, greet their old friend Nkala. They were together at Lilayi for a period of time and it was heartwarming to witness their reunion.
As one might expect, introducing some new personalities in the herd isn’t without its challenges. Rufunsa, a favorite elephant of mine, was NOT a big fan of the newcomers. If you want to understand how complex their social relationships are, watching this scene shows the tip of the iceberg. Rufunsa has been the “baby” of the release herd for several years.
At the age of 6, he is only slightly taller than the two newcomers, who are 3 years old. Although we do not fully understand the cause of his slow growth rate, he is otherwise healthy, but continues to play the role of the baby of the herd and the favorite of matriarch Chamilandu.
The entrance of two smaller, younger elephants has sparked the interest of Chama in her role as mother, and Rufunsa is feeling a bit put off. As he pushes Muchi and Nkala away and tries to show dominance over them, Chama steps in to protect the younger elephants, while gently reassuring Rufunsa that their special bond cannot be broken.
Over the next several days, I watched the elephants interact in the boma, and walked with them as they headed into the park with their keepers and scouts (who provide protection from predators for the keepers and the elephants) in search of browse and hopefully wild elephant herds.
As I watched them wander into the forest, I once again reflected on the inherent challenges in rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned elephants. There is so much we can do to help these individuals. We have the ability to be expert rescuers and caregivers. Their keepers become surrogate mothers and family while at the nursery, giving them security and comfort. Orphans face not only the physical challenges of dehydration, malnutrition and injury after being orphaned, but these very social and intelligent animals are also grieving the loss of their mothers and their herds. We treat their wounds, and do our best to provide a formula as close to elephant milk as we can (it’s not an easy task). We provide a safe environment for them to learn and explore with other orphans.
When they are ready to be weaned, we transport them to a pre-release facility, where they take the next step toward being wild. This is where we find Muchi and Nkala now. They will slowly be weaned from their bottles and as a result, become less dependent on their keepers. They will instead depend on the other members of the herd for the sense of family they have lost.
As I watched Nkala and Muchi wander into the forest with the older elephants, I was struck by how small they looked. Even the largest of this group are still only 8-10 years old; quite young to go off on their own. (Females normally stay with their maternal herd, while males leave the herd in the teen years.)
What does the future hold for these elephants? Last year, two members of this herd were lost; one to a lion, the other to an unknown cause, but possibly a snakebite. Since then, the team has been very protective, making every effort to gather all of the elephants back inside the protective fence of the boma each night.
But we can’t hold them back forever. We want them to be wild, to integrate into wild herds.
We strive for excellence in every stage of the care we provide, from rescue, the medical care, to socialization, to promoting wild interactions. We constantly look for ways to improve. We analyze all of the data and speak with colleagues to ensure we are always learning and improving. But, can we give them all that they need? Can we teach an elephant how to protect itself from a lion or other predators? Can we teach an elephant how to be an elephant?
What we can do is ensure that every orphan has the opportunity to attempt a life in the wild. We can work to mitigate those threats to the released elephants that are within our control, namely the impact we as humans can have on them. We can work to change the way communities view elephants. We can implement innovative means to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, human elephant conflict. We can work together to protect the elephants and their habitat, while finding ways to improve personal safety, food security and economic sustainability for local communities.
The results of our rescue efforts at the GRI-Elephant Orphanage Project have yet to be realized. Elephant rehabilitation and release is a long-term process. Rescuing a three-month-old elephant means you will now be raising this calf for the next ten to twelve years. Like human children, I wonder how much of who an elephant becomes is due to nature versus nurture? How much can we teach them about being a wild elephant? How much can they learn from each other? How much can they learn from the wild elephants they meet in the forest each day?
The project is learning from our experiences everyday in the hopes of giving present and future orphan elephants the best chances of a long, wonderful life in the wild.
The GRI-Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP) operates in partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW).
Article source: IFAW