In an unprecedented large-scale human-elephant conflict incident on the Zambia-Malawi border, three tiny young elephant calves were separated from their mothers in the commotion.
Tiny calves, Kasungu (left) and Lumezi comfort each other at the Elephant Nursery after a very traumatic week, having lost their families during a human-elephant conflict.
In Lumezi district, the community have not been used to elephant crop raiding for some years, and at this time of year maize development is beginning to yield its fruit. Late in the night of the 15th January, a herd of 50+ elephants left Kasungu National Park (Malawi) and entered the Lumezi community (Zambia) seeking to forage outside the park. As the community and rangers responded to the raid with traditional mitigation methods, the herd took flight, heading back to the safety of Kasungu National Park. The following morning a tiny young calf was reported wandering alone in Lumezi area close to where the incident had occurred. Rangers from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) Zambia responded and secured the calf with support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) team, who are based within the Malawi-Zambia Landscape, and brought him to a safe location at Lukusuzi National Park. IFAW provide support in this Trans-Frontier Conservation Area which links Lukusuzi and Kasungu National Parks across Zambia and Malawi and is considered an important wildlife corridor. With IFAW’s presence in the landscape, it was determined that some of the elephants within the crop-raiding herd were satellite-collared and this technology enabled the grounds teams to accurately identify and locate the herd later that evening. The team then were able to reunite the tiny calf with its family in Kasungu National Park!
Whilst this was an incredible feat, as time progressed another two tiny elephant calves were discovered by the community close to one another in the same area. The smallest estimated to be only 3-4 weeks, was found stuck in a ditch, and at some point, had sustained a machete wound to his forehead. The other, maybe 6 weeks old was seen near the health clinic. DNPW officers, with the help of the IFAW teams, again stepped in and were able to rescue both calves with the hope of also being able to reunite them with their herd. However, tragically by this time, the super-herd of elephants had moved quite far within Kasungu National Park to areas that were impassable. The larger herd had also split and dispersed, making it impossible to identify the mothers. At this point on 18th January GRI was called to assist, as given their age and time away from their mothers, it was critical to get these vulnerable young elephant calves into specialized care for their immediate survival.
Lumezi district is on the Zambia-Malawi boarder, over 11 hours away by road.
Lumezi is 730km from Lusaka and takes over 11 hours to reach by road. In such a fragile condition road travel would be too physically draining on such compromised young elephants. Luckily with great coordination, teamwork and IFAW sponsorship, we were able to mobilize a suitable plane from ProCharter that same day and a team from GRI with a DNPW wildlife vet arrived at the nearby airstrip in Lundazi, where the calves were given immediate hydration and stabilized by experienced Keepers and the Veterinarian overnight, before being flown to Lusaka the following morning.
Keepers Sunday (front) and Oliver immediately got to work to hydrate these vulnerable elephants and stabilize them overnight before their big journey to Lusaka Elephant Nursery.
Since the calves are so tiny it was possible to load them into the plane without a crate. They were secured lying down on mattresses with custom-made ‘elephant seat belts’ for safety. During the 2.5-hour flight, the calves were calm, and the Keepers stayed by their sides, as they comfort suckled on their fingers. At this young age, they would normally be with their mothers all the time, constantly in physical contact for reassurance and protection. The Keepers now have to do their best to replace this role and ensure that the calves are never left alone and are reassuring them always through physical touch.
Dr Jonathan Sinyinza, DNPW Vet injects immune boosters into the calves to support them throughout their relocation.
The young calves willingly walk up to the plane, closely following their new Keepers who they have already started to bond with having spent the night taking comfort in their arms and drinking from bottles.
All strapped in and ready to take off. The young calves were secured with elephant-sized belts on top of mattresses for comfort.
The tiny calves were so exhausted, they did not resist their bindings (which were essential for safety) and they slept peacefully during the 2.5-hour flight to Lusaka.
The plane landed at Kyindu Ranch airstrip, which was then a short transfer by road into Lusaka National Park where stables had been prepared at the Elephant Nursery for the youngest elephants it had hosted since opening.
The calves followed their Keepers, encouraged by their bottles to leave the trailer which was used to transfer them from the airstrip to the Nursery.
Since their arrival, the calves have settled well. They have both relaxed enough to get good sleep and have responded with good appetite to the specialized milk formula. The older calf, named Kasungu, is flourishing. From the moment he arrived, he has demonstrated good energy, rumbling for his feeds to come, and then always asks for more. The smaller and younger of the two was named Lumezi. His condition is more worrying, and he has not recovered as well as Kasungu. Since he was found stuck in a ditch, it is likely that from the moment he lost his mother he was under huge stress, using up his limited energy struggling to escape and failing. It’s Clear from the machete wound on his forehead, that he has been through severe trauma. At such a young age these elephants have little reserves, so the loss of nutrients and, hydration coupled with trauma can push them to their limit very quickly. The two elephants are being cared for together although Kasungu is pushy and demanding of the Keepers’ attention, so there are always two Keepers present to ensure each elephant calf gets the support and individual attention he needs. This is a very labour-intensive stage with Keepers providing around-the-clock care and comfort and feeds every two hours.
This early-stage post-rescue is a critical one. Both calves are still very vulnerable at this point and Lumezi’s condition is very worrying so we expect there will be more sleepless nights ahead. However, we remain committed to doing everything we can to give these two elephants every chance for survival and for a life back in the wild where they belong.
Lumezi drinks water from his keeper's hands. At this age the calves do not have the strength in their trunks to drink for themselves, they can only suckle.
The GRI-Elephant Orphanage Project operates in partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Olsen Animal Trust, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife.
Article by Rachael Murton, Wildlife Rescue Director