Witnessing Wonders at the Baobab Waterhole
When we think of Tsavo, the first thing that comes to mind is the waterhole. It is not only a hub for various creatures but also a source of life. The baobab waterhole in Voi has recently witnessed an extraordinary event that I would like to share with you this month. As someone who has spent a lifetime observing elephants, it is another reminder of how remarkable these animals are and how they never fail to amaze us in the most incredible ways. Let me take you through the unforgettable story that unfolded at the baobab waterhole. – Angela Sheldrick
A Place of Wonders
Voi is situated in a picturesque area of Tsavo that boasts boundless plains extending far beyond the horizon. After the rain season, this immense wilderness transforms into an emerald paradise. However, as soon as the dry spell kicks in, it becomes a landscape of beige and sun-baked red earth. The scarcity of seasonal water sources during this period makes life incredibly tough for all the creatures that inhabit this ecosystem.
This was the inspiration behind the creation of the Voi waterhole. As our natural world continues to diminish, it is crucial to nurture and cherish every acre of existing habitat. Although our Voi stockades have always provided adequate water for the orphans, we wanted to enhance the greater landscape by providing additional resources. A central waterhole, located behind Msinga Hill, would become another gathering place for our orphaned animals and their wild peers. It would also serve as a means of supporting the big and small creatures struggling to cope with the ever-changing world. Although wild animals are not responsible for climate change, they are the ones who experience its effects most acutely.
Located in the expansive Tsavo region, Voi is a waterhole that was created approximately five years ago. It was intended to serve as a precious gift to our orphaned herd, as well as the diverse wildlife that resides in the area. Positioned underneath a colossal baobab tree, this watering spot provides an excellent scratching post for animals, and its branches form a shady canopy. In this vast expanse of land, Voi serves as a focal point for all living beings.
As soon as it was established, the local wildlife started gathering around it. They visit all year round, but their presence is more pronounced during the dry season. You can almost feel their overwhelming relief at discovering a new source of water in this vast region. The waterhole attracts giraffes forming towers, zebras in dazzles, herds of buffaloes, and a multitude of elephants.
In times of drought, water is scarce in this region. To address this issue, we constructed a waterhole for the baobab trees. Our orphaned elephants have adapted well to their new surroundings and often observe wild elephants, learning from them. These interactions are crucial in teaching our young elephants about life in the wild. The wild elephants have accepted our unique herd, along with their caregivers. Whenever a visiting herd arrives with a baby elephant, our orphans cannot contain their excitement. While some are shy, Tamiyoi fearlessly approaches the mothers and requests to play with their little ones. Others like Tagwa and Sagala watch enviously from the sidelines but are too timid to join in the fun.
The watering hole is a popular spot for a variety of wild animals, both big and small. Within the elephant society, respect is paramount, and the wild elephants that visit exude a certain level of gravity. However, one unique member of the group, Lemeki, remains unfazed by their presence. As the queen of her world, Lemeki’s sheltered upbringing at Kaluku Neonate Nursery has not deterred her from asserting her dominance in any situation. On a sweltering afternoon, a large herd of adult elephants approached the watering hole where Lemeki was enjoying a private swim. While most young elephants would have relinquished their spot to the adults, Lemeki did not pick up on this social cue and remained firmly in place. The Keepers were amused by her boldness and independence
Lemeki was casually frolicking around, seemingly unaware of the nearby wild elephants who were hoping to quench their thirst. You can watch a video of this memorable moment. Instead of being intimidated, Lemeki actually increased her playful behavior for the entertainment of those watching. The elephants seemed amused by the young troublemaker, even as one of them had a small calf beside her. Lemeki playfully tapped the young elephant with her trunk. Her companion, Thamana, watched from the side, wondering what Lemeki would do next.
The creation of the Voi waterhole brought about many interesting revelations, but one incident earlier this month brought its significance into sharp focus. To fully understand, we must go back to 2017 when a severe drought killed hundreds of elephants in Kenya and left many orphans behind, including Tahri. Found nearly dead in Tsavo East at two years old and only a short distance from Voi, we chose to forego the Nursery stage and raise her at the Voi waterhole instead.
Every day, the area beneath the majestic baobab tree becomes a witness to some of the most heartwarming scenes of joy. One such story is about Tahri, who spent three blissful years at Voi. During her stay, she found solace under the care of the older girls, especially Kenia and Ndii, who became her surrogate mothers. They showered her with love and guidance, making her a very happy calf.
However, in February 2021, something unusual happened that caught everyone off-guard. On a regular morning at the Voi waterhole, Tahri mingled with a group of wild elephants that were familiar to the keepers. To their surprise, Tahri got surrounded by the herd, with two females standing guard on either side of her, making it challenging for the keepers to retrieve her. Despite their efforts and persuasion, Tahri was adamant about staying with the females, and even her closest friends like Rorogoi, Arruba, Ndotto, Murit, Lasayen, and Araba could not convince her otherwise.
Last year, Tahri made the decision to leave our care and join a wild herd. As an orphan, it was ultimately her choice to make and she was very clear about being ready to take that step. We searched for her extensively over the following weeks, just in case she had been separated from the herd. Sadly, we were unable to locate them and they disappeared into the vastness of Tsavo. We couldn’t help but wonder if this new herd could be her long-lost family, given how confidently she joined them. Although it’s highly unlikely for orphans to reunite with their natal family later in life due to the vast distances elephants roam, it’s not impossible – particularly for a lucky orphan like Tahri who was rescued near Voi.
Tahri departed with a renowned herd that is led by a powerful matriarch with crossed tusks. Nevertheless, this speculation didn’t hold up because the herd regularly visited Voi and their leader was familiar to us. It was puzzling why they only took her with them now if they were truly her kin. It has been one year since Tahri rejoined the wild, and we haven’t caught a glimpse of her in months. Nonetheless, she remains on our minds as the dry season ravages Tsavo and takes the lives of numerous elephants, leaving many orphans behind. Unlike our dependent herd, Tahri must fend for herself without the aid of supplementary feeds during these trying times.
Tahri was welcomed back to the herd with a special gift – a bottle of porridge oats. Fast forward to the present day, the orphans at the Voi waterhole were enjoying a normal morning – drinking and wallowing before heading off to browse. A wild herd approached and while they stopped for a drink, one elephant spotted the orphans in the distance and came hurrying towards them. The Keepers were surprised by the visitor’s confidence and enthusiasm, but soon realized that it was none other than Tahri, a beloved member of their herd.
Lasayen greeted Tahri with a special welcome home talent show while the Keepers observed the wild herd’s reaction to her return. However, they appeared unbothered and left, suggesting that this meeting with Tahri was prearranged. The Keepers believe that the elephants’ complex communication will keep them in contact with Tahri even as they travel through Tsavo. The orphans welcomed Tahri with open trunks, and they expressed their excitement by clustering around her. Mudanda took her for a browsing session, while Thamana introduced himself. Mbegu, Voi’s matriarch, was especially joyous upon Tahri’s return, which contrasted significantly from their first meeting in 2018 when she saw her as competition. Tahri received discipline from Mbegu when she poured cold water on her head, but they eventually became close friends over the years.
Mudanda wasted no time in inviting Tahri for a browsing session, while Thamana introduced himself to the group. The Keepers were pleased to see that Tahri looked healthy and well, which was a remarkable achievement considering she had left their care during the worst dry season since 2017. During her time away, Tahri had learned to navigate the harsh conditions with the help of her wild companions. However, upon returning to Voi, Tahri seemed eager to rejoin the group and indulge in her favorite treat of porridge oats. It was heartwarming to see how easily Tahri settled back into her routine, as if she had never left.
There are countless untold tales from this incredible gathering spot. The actual events surrounding Tahri’s story will forever remain a mystery. It seems unlikely that her family claimed her, given what happened afterward. It’s more plausible that she simply found solace in this group of elephants. They cared for her and protected her during a harsh dry season. Eventually, Tahri seemed to sense it was time to return “home” and the herd dutifully escorted her back to the waterhole where they first met before departing once again.
The Voi waterhole is a place of wonder and magic. Last year, Tahri was able to regain her place in the wild after being cared for by the herd. This year, she returned home triumphantly. Perhaps one day in the future, after Tahri has embraced her wild existence, she might stroll up to the waterhole with her own offspring in tow. But for now, this sanctuary and comfort zone provide a haven where our young adventurer can enjoy her time back home.