By Sarah Davies
The Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP) of Game Rangers International (GRI) has grown rapidly in the past six years, from humble beginnings as a basic bush camp in Zambia’s Kafue National Park where it supported a few young orphaned elephants raised by a handful of locally employed keepers.
Since the project catered for young milk dependant elephant calves, a purpose built stable was constructed at Kafue to keep the vulnerable orphans safe from lion predation at night.
However, the project has grown along with the number of calves we have rescued. Eventually, GRI was fortunate to receive the funding needed to open a dedicated elephant nursery in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, where the high level of care required by the youngest could be met.
This made it possible to transition our first home at Kafue NP into a focused release facility, catering for those elephants that are ready to be weaned from milk and start the gradual process of ‘re-wilding’. The aim being that they will one day live back in the wild where they belong.
This week, a mammoth event in the history of the EOP took place!
With massive thanks to donors John and Jenny Cason and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a sturdy three hectare outer boma (paddock) has been securely fenced with an anti-predator focus!
This incredible new asset will allow the older, weaned orphans the opportunity to move freely, socialise and forage throughout the night – three essential behaviours that are typical of wild elephants and that the orphans must be comfortable with before they can be returned to the wild.
The fence consists of 12-strands of electric wire on offsets both internally and externally, reinforced with wire mesh along the sides and standing a total of three metres high. We are confident that this system will keep the elephants safe from the prides of lion that reside in the area. In addition a ZAWA officer is stationed at the outer boma, along with elephant keepers who will monitor the elephants throughout the night.
But how did the elephants react?
After having spent the last six years sleeping in a stable at night, Chamilandu (at eight years old, the oldest female at EOP) was hesitant to go anywhere other than her stable. In fact all the elephants initially returned to the boma stable that they know as home.
The keepers patiently encouraged the elephants away from the stable and down to the waterhole where they are used to being fed at midday. After a few shakes of the bucket the sound and smell of pellets had the elephants following their stomachs down to the water. Once the keepers had ensured everyone had received a small token of food, they left the elephants devouring some strategically placed browse.
Since the youngest orphans at the Kafue Release Facility are still yet to be milk weaned, they had been led to their stables as usual. Mosi and Rufunsa will be stabled for a little longer, until the next orphans arrive from the nursery and the youngsters will then be weaned together before joining the “big four” in the outer boma overnight.
At first there were concerns that Chamilandu might try to break into the stables overnight to be with Runfunsa, whom she closely mothers, however Chamilandu must have enjoyed her new night time freedom and to our surprise she seemed content to just wander over to check on Rufunsa from time to time.
He, on the other hand, was not so pleased with the new arrangement and seemed quite disgruntled that his surrogate mother was leaving him for such a long period. Once they were properly reunited the following morning he would not leave her side… we will monitor his (and everyone elses) behaviour closely over the next few days and are hoping all the elephants will settle well into this new routine.
Let’s not forget Chodoba!
Chodoba (nine years old) is the oldest elephant in the care of EOP and has been wandering freely at night for over a year now and is fitted with a satellite collar so that we may track his movements. From the data collected to date we know that he doesn’t yet venture too far from his herd or home, but he is getting braver all the time. Last night Chodoba did not return with the other elephants to the boma, and by the time he did show up he found the gates closed. He lingered just a few moments before heading off into the bush as is his usual night-time pattern.
So the first night of using the outer boma went very well, with the elephants settling, the fence being operational throughout the night and no disturbances from any other wildlife. The keepers greeted us with big smiles first thing this morning!
The addition of the outer boma to EOP will have a huge impact on the success of the release of these orphaned elephants, so we would like to thank again our generous donors for enabling this element of the project. The fencing system was installed with thanks to MEPS (Z) Ltd who are tremendous supporters of EOP and our own in-house team led by Fednand, who is in charge of maintaining this fantastic fence!