MASAI MARA, KenyaOne day last October, a mother elephant and her ten-month-old calf were seen playing together on the plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve when a passing tourist photographed the tranquil scene.
Twenty-four hours later, on October 22, the young calf was spotted again—this time standing over her mother's poisoned carcass, seemingly reluctant to leave her side.
The young calf had her head down, and her trunk was draped across the mother's back when Richard Roberts, from the Mara Elephant Project, arrived.
After examining the dead mother more closely, he found a poisoned spear wound in her cheek, indicating a fatal attack by ivory poachers.
The mother was still nursing the calf before the lethal, fast-acting poison stopped her heart, and now, as she lay motionless on the dry plains, the baby was left without a source of food.
When the herd slowly began to move away, the calf followed behind another lactating mother and her calf. The hungry orphan tried to suckle, but the mother gently pushed her away.
"An orphan will sometimes get taken in by another mother in a breeding herd", said Angela Sheldrick, executive director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), an orphan-elephant rehabilitation facility based in Nairobi.
"But she will only share her milk in situations where it would not jeopardize the health of her own infants."
It was obvious that the mother was denying the orphan milk. Deprived of sustenance, the young elephant would soon weaken in the heat of the day, fall behind the herd, and likely die on the plains.
The herd was moving toward the Tanzanian border, and if the baby elephant crossed it, a rescue mission would be impossible.
The young elephant’s chances of survival hinged on a successful capture and transport operation, so the trust's rescue unit was called in from Nairobi to assist with the mission.
See a video of the dramatic rescue:
In the meantime, the matriarch of the herd had become extremely protective toward the orphaned baby, and the rescuers faced a difficult task in separating the calf from her and the rest of the herd.
After carefully maneuvering a Land Cruiser into place, they isolated the baby from the matriarch and leaped from the vehicle, restraining the little elephant by hand.
They wrapped the traumatized baby in warm blankets and hoisted her into the bed of the four-by-four and rushed her to the Mara airstrip.
As the Cessna took off, the infant lay quietly, her pale eyes staring up at the trust's elephant keepers, who gave her tranquilizers to calm her as they bumbled east over the Great Rift Valley, en route to an unfamiliar new world.
The team landed in Nairobi at dusk and offloaded the sleeping calf onto a flatbed truck. She finally arrived at the DSWT nursery, in Nairobi National Park, after dark, where she thankfully accepted a fresh bottle of milk.
The elephant calf made it through the night, and in the morning the team named her Roi.
After a flurry of media coverage around the incident, little has been revealed about Roi's progress at the orphanage.
The Power of Grief
"The first few weeks for a young elephant orphan are always critical," Sheldrick said.
"Like humans, elephants have a remarkable capacity for emotions, and we see behaviors linked to this every day.
"They show signs of depression, which manifests in listless and withdrawn behavior and wanting to spend long periods in solitude. The frightened elephants have to learn to adapt to their new surroundings."
Sadly, not all elephants make it, Sheldrick explained. If the feeling of grief or distress becomes too much, they can literally give up on life, refusing food or water.
Ensuring that the orphans feel like part of a herd—a family—is extremely important, along with constant touch and attention from the keepers who feed and nurse them on their road to recovery.
Roi Doing Well
After two days in the stockade, Roi was let out with the other orphan elephants in the Nairobi herd. She was immediately comfortable and content among the older orphans, who gave her the attention and love she needed.
She craved her milk bottle and gravitated to the keepers for her three-hourly feedings.
Roi will live among the Nairobi herd until the age of three, when she'll be moved to one of the DSWT rehabilitation centers in the Tsavo national parks. There, she'll be weaned off milk and reintroduced to wild elephants in the area.
It can take as long as ten years for an orphan to choose to leave her adopted family and rejoin a wild herd.
"As a young milk-dependent calf, Roi wouldn't have survived without our intervention, and she's now been given a second chance," Sheldrick said.
"Over the years, we've raised and reintroduced over 90 elephants into the wild, and 82 infant elephants are currently reliant on us," she said.
"The poaching situation is escalating in East Africa, and we need to be ready to provide that same lifesaving care for other orphaned elephants in need."
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