"Don't count your chickens…" was the cautionary message send out to our WhatsApp group when there was excited chatter about the future of a baby elephant that had just been rescued.
Theo's first rescue with the Elephant Orphanage Project happened while I was visiting family back in the UK, so all I had to keep up with events was the group. With a few fuzzy photos, the story unfolded... A baby (around 18 months old) had been spotted by local villagers, wandering around without a herd. As she had been spotted a few times they contacted ZAWA (Zambian Wildlife Authority), and so contacted GRI and the EOP. After Theo and the team got to her, they saw she was severely emaciated and dehydrated, and had likely been without a herd for some time. She was rescued and brought back to the Kafue Release Facility.
They named her "Ntubya" after the remote village she was found in Musungwa Chiefdom, bordering Kafue National Park. As she was so weak a lot of effort went into stabilising her under 24 hour care, getting her strong enough to be relocated to the Nursery facility, where she will be closer to veterinary care, and elephants her own age. Over the next week, the news that she was drinking a lot and getting stronger, was encouraging, so after a vet had visited and given her the go ahead, it was confirmed she would be flying to the Lilayi Elephant Nursery. This was due to happen the day after I arrived back in to Zambia, and I would be staying at Lilayi when she would arrive.
Theo transported her from the Release Facility and loaded her onto the small plane. She was loaded and took off at 10:15 due to land just after 11:00, she would definitely beat Theo to Lusaka who had to drive, a 7 hour journey! Her offloading was smooth and she was driven the short distance from the airstrip to the nursery and began to drink milk from her keeper Eldridge immediately. This was a really good sign, however she looked extremely weak and skinny and the journey had obviously taken it out of her. She was helped back to a stable in the boma with the keepers supporting her walking with a blanket. The other ellies came in as usual that lunch time, first not noticing there was anything different - too interested in their milk bottles - but when they did they curiously tried to get close to her. However, for their own safety they were kept from getting to her, just incase she did have some underlying illness - we didn't want to risk infection to the others.
Later that afternoon/evening she gave everyone a scare as she collapsed and we rallied around getting hot water bottles and blankets to get her very low body temperature up. I had my friend Laurie's voice on a loop in my head saying "once they go down, it's so hard to get them up again", which is what she said to me just after a baby ellie in our care, Fiela, had to go on a drip, and later we had to come to the decision to have her put to sleep. Ntubya was closely watched over that night and we got news in the morning, saying she was looking better and stronger. She was weighed in at 192kg and was walking around outside her pen. We got a few pictures over the group after we had left for the bush, where she was walking around outside her pen, her face covered in turmeric (a natural fly repellent), and looking like a survivor... sure to make her way back to the wild (or so I was sure). However nearly two weeks later we got the news that she had passed away in the night. She had collapsed a few times and it was a struggle to keep her low body temperature up. Tests showed that she had a protein deficiency resulting from starvation due to separation from her mother, as well as a high parasite load.
So as I was busily making plans in my head to incorporate this little girl into our behavioural observations, the advice not to count chickens, was right. People who have been doing this for a long time know how hard it is to keep a fragile baby elephant alive, the rescue is only the first step...