An elephant’s journey back to the wild and a heart warming reunion
An update directly from our ground-based conservation partners in Zambia:
The GRI-Elephant Orphanage Project was established to rescue, rehabilitate and release orphaned elephants back into the wild. Given that elephant calves usually stay with their mothers until they are between 8 and 12 years old, the Elephant Orphanage takes on a long-term commitment with every new orphan that comes into our care. In 2009 a very emaciated 1.5 year old orphan was found on an island in the Zambezi River by Livingstone’s Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park. The poor calf was spotted alone by micro-light pilots from ‘Batoka Sky’, who alerted DNPW and GRI. With tremendous community effort and logistics provided by Batoka Sky the calf was darted by helicopter to immobilize him, captured by hand and transferred safely by boat to the mainland and into the Park where he was stabilised inside an enclosure. He immediately took to the comfort of a bottle and after a couple of days was strong enough to make the 8-hour drive to Elephant Orphanage in Kafue National Park (back then we only had one facility). ‘Bushtracks Africa’generously built a purpose made crate to help transport him safely, so the young orphan, named ‘Batoka’ was then driven to the orphanage to meet the other elephants within GRI’s care.
Rachael Murton Wildlife Rescue Director remembers “Seeing Batoka meet the other elephants was heart-breaking as he didn’t take to the herd instantly. He had seemingly been alone for so long and was potentially suffering with post-traumatic stress, so would not interact willingly with the others, despite their gentle attempts. He even seemed too despondent to mud bath and I remember him standing to the side as the others rolled in the mud and on top of one another. Poor Batoka stood alone looking dejected and would not get in the mud. So we used to help him mudbathe, slapping the mud on and rubbing him to stimulate some interest in this activity which is so fundamental to elephants!” His integration into the herd was slow and it took about 6 months for Batoka to really seem like he was part of the herd and years for him to develop deep meaningful relationships in particular with closest ages-mates Chamilandu and Tafika. Tafika is the closest bull of his age and so became his play-mate. The two have been seen ‘tusking’, pushing and climbing on one another frequently over the years. All this play is normal and important as it helps develop muscles and the skills they will require as independent wild bulls.
As the years went by Batoka became a very healthy, large and confident young bull. His first adventures away from the Release Facility started in 2015 luckily just after he had been fitted with a GPS and VHF radio-tracking collar which enabled us to monitor his movements when out of sight. He joined older herd mates Chodoba and Chamilandu, and Kafue and Tafika to venture out of the Park into the Game Management Area where wild elephants roam over 25km away. They spent a few weeks in the wild before Chamilandu and Tafika and then Batoka then returned to the camp. Batoka thereafter stayed pretty close to camp coming and going on occasion and seen interacting with wild elephants but never fully integrating and leaving the area until this year. Batoka had developed a strong and important relationship with Chamilandu who is his closest age-mate and long-term surrogate sibling. The two of them had found confidence in each others company and stayed outside the protection of the Release Facility boma overnight since 2016.
However, when Chamilandu gave birth to a calf (by a wild elephant father) in September 2019 she returned to the facility ‘boma’ for the first time in 4 years to afford her vulnerable calf the protection he needed (without a female herd of her own). Batoka then found himself torn. He was not going to step back inside the boma, but was not confident enough to go very far without Chamilandu by his side. So he would spend his nights wandering around the Release Facility and moving a KM or so, but joining the orphan herd by day as they made their way into the Park. However in February 2020 Batoka left the Release Facility by himself and returned only for a few days in May before leaving again and not coming back to date. This was a huge milestone in his release progression. We were confident he was moving with wild elephants as we tracked his movements in the GMA and by the Lake along with those of known wild elephant movements. This has been a real breakthrough in Batoka’s re-wilding, demonstrating the confidence to defend himself against predators, forage adequately and socialise with wild elephants. Using his GPS collar we have been able to track him close enough to get drone footage as evidence of his immersion within wild elephant society but the apex of his journey so far came when our CEO Sport Beattie saw him with his own eyes along the ITT Lake shore amongst a super herd of 70 plus elephants! This sight was an unbelievable reward of 11 years of care, nurture and determination to get these elephants living back in the wild where they belong.
Batoka (now 12y 7mo) has just made a celebrity-like re-appearance to the Release Herd after living fully wild since February 2020!
He appeared near the Elephant Release Facility just as the orphan herd left the boma for their morning walk in the Kafue National Park. The herd approached him with extreme excitement and emotion; with Chamilandu (herd Matriarch), Tafika, Mutaanzi David and Mphamvu being the first to approach him and smelling him intently. An elephant’s primary way to gather information about family members is through their scent – they have more genes related to smell than any other species – five times the amount as us, and twice the amount of dogs!
Despite the clear excitement exhibited by the herd, Batoka didn’t seem as interested in them and it was clear that his main focus was to reconnect with age-mate Tafika. They behaved playfully although Batoka clearly had the upper hand in terms of confidence and strength. After reconnecting through sparring they both moved away from the herd and went exploring together away from the release facility.
Encouragingly, Batoka did not seem as “at ease” with his human care takers as he once was. This is really important, as it demonstrates his increasing independence from his human family, which will be critical to his success in the wild.
Since 2016 the research team have been monitoring Batoka’s movements via his GPS satellite collar and real-time tracking in anticipation of his release, and 2020 has marked his significant progression. Thanks to the data we collect on Batoka we have also learnt a lot about the wild elephants he has been associating with and this information is used by our Resource Protection Programme to better protect both wild elephants and the orphans in the release area of Southern Kafue National Park.
You can help orphan elephants return to the wild by donating to DSWF, today