Two orphaned elephants name Nkala and Muchichili are being slowly released into a herd of ten other elephants after being transported to Kafue Release Facility in Zambia.
Nkala and Muchi were both orphaned.
Muchi was found with warts, emaciated and stressed after he was found in January 2016 at the Lower Zambezi River.
Both of the orphaned elephants were taken to the Zambia Elephant Orphanage Project and last week, they were transported to the Kafue Rescue Facility.
Orphaned young elephants slowly reintegrating
The ten other 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, their keepers all stood at a distance to observe their interactions.
Matriarch elephant takes charge
There were a few tense moments as they 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 by the elephants’ keepers 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, according to Katie Moore, program director with IFAW, who noted that Chamilandu was 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.
Other elephants slower to warm up to newcomers
Rufunsa, a favorite elephant of Moore’s 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.
Orphaned baby elephants getting weaned from bottles
Muchi and Nkala 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 as Moore noted, keepers can’t hold the elephants 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?