" Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing."~John Donne
Baby elephant Zongoloni was a one-and-a-half-year-old milk dependent calf when she was forced to witness her mother suffer and die before her. It is difficult to comprehend why any infant should have to go through this heart break and suffering, but when it is purely to perpetuate a sickening trade that is bringing these beautiful, majestic creatures near to extinction, it has to be a shameful tragedy. Terrified, grief stricken, lonely, confused, frightened and hungry, emotions and situations we would never wish our own child to have to go through, and yet Zongoloni is one of many elephant calves orphaned in this way, because of ivory poaching.
But where some human beings are willing to destroy life, there are always others ready to save lives too, so luckily for Zongoloni she was rescued by 'The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's' elephant orphanage to be cared for.
Despite the very best efforts by vets, who initially treated her wound, the poacher's bullet had travelled too deep into her right front leg and Zongoloni's mother collapsed from her injuries a week later. Unable to stand up, the swirls of dirt around her testified to the mum's desperate efforts to keep going for her frightened, confused and helpless baby, who took on the role of protector for her dying mother, remaining by her side and chasing off any intruders.
It was clear though that Zongoloni urgently needed rescuing if she was to stay alive, and sadly her beautiful mother regrettably had to be put out of her misery too. This was when The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) were contacted, known for their outstanding successes in rescuing orphaned baby elephants.
The fight for Zongoloni's survival began. The heart-breaking scene the first rescuers witnessed was harrowing, reducing some of them to tears - men who frequently encounter poached elephant carcasses. So desperate for fluid was this poor baby, she had been reduced into drinking her dying mother's urine.
Dehydrated and dangerously weak, she was captured by the rescue team, tranquillised and placed on a lifesaving drip in preparation for the 1½ hour flight back to Nairobi, whilst her mother was sadly put to sleep.
ARRIVAL AT THE NURSERY
It's hard to grasp the initial fear Zongoloni must have experienced when she arrived at The DSWT's Elephant Orphanage that evening. Having already sustained inconceivable suffering, she was now in an unfamiliar environment, assaulted by new sounds, sights and scents, surrounded by unknown humans - the same species that killed her mother.
BUT SHE WASN'T ALONE. To date, more than 200 orphaned elephants have been saved by the DSWT, and their role in an infant elephant's recovery is just as important as that of the human Keepers who replace an orphan's lost family. Placed in a warm and comfortable stable with orphaned elephants either side of her, their rumbles and caressing trunks reassured Zongoloni that she was in a place of safety.
Named Zongoloni, a Taita name for a hill located close to where she was rescued, it's hardly surprising trust in her human carers took time. Twelve days passed before her aggression towards them subsided, however, a bottle of milk proved to be a successful way to her heart. Her first day out with the orphaned herd into the Nairobi forest was the first steps towards her rehabilitation back into the wild. Zongoloni was now forming a bond with her new elephant friends, and them with her.
It takes months of specialist care for orphaned calves like Zongoloni to overcome their emotional traumas and establish trusting relationships with a human-elephant family, but this is what DSWT do exceptionally well.
THE NEXT PHASE
Zongoloni is now in the next phase of her journey, having been moved to a brand new specialist Reintegration Unit in a protected area, where she will learn how to become a wild elephant once again.
Close to the Chyulu Hills National Park in Southern Kenya, the Umani Reintergration Unit will present her with many challenges. Zongoloni, along with a fledgling herd of orphans will learn new survival skills, including sleeping alone and finding edible plants. Over time she will become less dependent on her human keepers, but they remain with the young orphans until they join wild herds.
Already, camera traps have spotted wild elephants visiting the new arrivals from the nearby Chyulu Hills National Park coming to drink from the drinking trough erected for the orphans' use.
The depth of Zongoloni's ability to forgive is inspiring. Having learned to trust the DSWT's elephant's carers and choosing to rely on them during her development, a life back in the wild is now just a matter of time.
Life for Africa's elephants has been made difficult by ivory poachers. The poisoned arrows, bullets and snares used to inhumanely steal their tusks, not only threatens the life of the elephant, but also of their infant calves too. Zongoloni's story, along with many before her is such a graphic reminder of the price that is paid for ivory.
In 1979, an estimated 1.3 million elephants roamed the plains. Now a recent census, the first of its kind, found there are less than 400,000 savannah elephants in Africa and tragically more than 50 elephants are being killed each day for their ivory. At this rate we could lose half the remaining population in the next ten years. That's more than half of Africa's elephants gone. Do you worry?
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Zongoloni's tragic story is one of hope and happiness, because she received the help and love she needed. We can make a difference for elephants like Zongoloni. You can help, however small.
• You can foster an orphan elephant like Zongoloni at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for £33 / year here
• You can join the iworry campaign : www.iworry.org
• You can join in the 2016 Global March for Elephants and Rhinos on Sept 24th in London https://www.facebook.com/events/1003767319661645/
Thank you to Amie Alden(The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust) for her wonderful contribution to this blog.