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Orphaned Elephants Mbila & Shezongo Move Back to Kafue!

Orphaned elephants Mbila and Shezongo at Lusaka National Park

Mbila (right) and Zongo (left) at Lusaka National Park before the relocation to Kafue

Just when the rest of the world was unable to catch a flight due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, two young, orphaned elephants took to the air and flew across Zambia when they were rescued due to a human-elephant conflict (follow this link to the ‘double rescue’ film series). Three years later, after intensive rehabilitation at the Elephant Nursery they have recovered physically, emotionally and socially, and have made the exciting journey back to their homelands in Kafue National Park.

Mbila age 3 years and 6 months (image by Linda Rorbye) and Zongo ages 3 years 5 months

At 3yr6mo and 3yr5mo respectively, Mbila and Zongo were very ready to graduate to the Kafue Release Facility to become part of this bigger release herd, to understand herd hierarchy and dynamics, improve their foraging skills and learn to navigate the landscape and environment that is going to be their new home for many years to come. The two elephants have been best of friends since their rescue and this alliance has provided them with comfort and reassurance to aid this significant transition in their rehabilitation process.

Research Assistant, Mary Muyoyeta, was on the ground to support the translocation and she reports…

Mary Muyoyeta, Wildlife Rescue Research Assistant at Elephant Nursery

As the sun rose the team assembled at the Elephant Nursery for this big day. Mbila and Zongo were let out of their stables and DNPW vet Dr Chadzaantso Phiri quickly darted them both. It took around 10 minutes for the drugs to take effect and once the elephants were down, we worked quickly to ensure they were in good positions to facilitate breathing. Team members had various roles to ensure we monitored their vitals, took biological samples for health checks and research, and fitted tracking collars."

With thanks to WWF, we are trialling the implementation of tracking collars at this early stage/age for the very first time. In the event that Mbila and Zongo do not bond sufficiently with the KRF herd and decide to leave (as we have seen in the past with Kakaro, Njanji and Chip), we should now be able to monitor their progress in the wild.

Mary collects blood, hair and dung samples from Zongo whilst Keepers monitor her vital signs (left) and Theo fits the collars (right).

They were then lifted one at a time, using a cargo net inside the wildlife truck, Mbila first, then Zongo. This part is a really tough job as both elephants weighed over 670Kg so a lot of manpower is required. Once in the truck, the veterinary team administered the reversal drug and very quickly both calves were up on their feet. The Keepers gave them a bottle of milk to reassure and hydrate them, and their 400km journey to Kafue National Park began.

It takes a lot of manpower to get the elephants loaded onto the trailer (left). The convoy stops to check on the elephants and offer them browse (right).

To ensure their welfare we made regular stops, every two hours to offer them milk, electrolytes, fresh browse and to cool their bodies with water. Their Keepers Sunday and Miyanda, who they are fond of, travelled with them and provided reassuring words at each stop. They were mostly calm during the journey, browsing and seen waving their trunks out the top of the truck on few occasions. Both refused to drink milk at the first stop (which is not uncommon due to the stress of travel), but each took some milk on the following stops.

Despite it being a long journey, we reached the Release Facility within 9 hours which is good timing (as it usually takes 7 hours without elephants) and we arrived in the early evening in the daylight. Unsure of their new environment at first and shaken by the journey, Mbila and Zongo were reluctant to get out of the truck when the doors were opened for them. Not even milk bottles could lure them out! Thankfully, their Nursery keepers were right by their side when they needed comfort and the reassurance that it was Ok. After about 20 minutes of gentle persuasion, they finally walked down the sandy ramp and into the boma where they were rewarded with bottles of milk, which by now they hungrily accepted.

Zongo and then Mbila are finally encouraged out of the truck and into the KRF boma where rehydrating bottles and a stable with a thick hay bed and lots of browse were at the ready.

Orphaned elephants Mbila and Shezongo step into their new home at Kafue National Park

Mbila (left) and Zongo get their first sniff of Kafue sand and scents since their rescue over three years ago in the Shezongo community lands

After their milk, Zongo and Mbila scanned the new environment, periscope sniffling with their trunks, as they took in all the new smells, and were then led into the stable by the keepers where they would spend the night and have a chance to lie down and recover from the long journey. Few minutes later, the KRF herd returned from their walk, and they become aware of the presence of Zongo and Mbila.

While most of the elephants did not show too much concern about the newcomers, Olimba and Ludaka seemed to have recognized Zongo and Mbila (they were herd mates at the Nursery), sniffing their trunks towards them and producing deep rumbles. Olimba, as soon as she finished her milk bottle, immediately went to their stable but because it was secured and separated by the boma poles, she went in the side and managed to get her trunk far enough in to interact with Zongo. However, with the exhaustion of the long journey it was important that Mbila and Zongo were given a full night’s rest to recover their strength, before interacting with the KRF herd.

Both elephants slept really well that night, sharing a stable for comfort and completing all milk feeds throughout the night like usual. The following morning, while the keepers were opening the secured stables, Musolole, who is renowned for his friendly nature, was the first to enter; even seen pulling at the poles to access the newcomers. Once the gate was opened, Muso went inside the stable, forcing Mbila to move outside and start socialising. Mbila was a little startled by this large new elephant and went straight to Zongo and Olimba outside the stable where they stayed close together. The threesome walked together and joined the rest of the herd who were waiting at the Boma gate to head out for their first walk.”

Orphaned elephants Mbila and Shezongo interact with their new herd mates

Mbila and Shezongo with the Release Herd at Kafue National Park

As Mbila and Zongo took their first steps back into the wild of Kafue National Park we are filled with an overwhelming sense of joy and achievement at getting these elephants back into their native homelands. With their initial interactions demonstrating respect to the older herd members, we feel confident that Mbila and Zongo will settle easily into the KRF herd and flourish back in KNP where they belong.

Zongo and Mbila’s rehabilitation and relocation has been made possible with thanks to our partners at Department of National Parks and Wildlife, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, IFAW and Olsen Animal Trust. Musolole is generously supported by Elephant Cooperation.

You can adopt Mbila and Shezongo as part of a special double package. This will support them as they continue with their journey back to the wild where they belong. Adopt an elephant today and you will not only be supporting them, but the Rangers that care for them, the Rangers that protect them and the Rangers who work with communities to educate and empower them to conserve the elephant's habitat.


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