Mary: An Elephant Story

Against All Odds

Mary’s Story • The Elephant We’ll Never Forget

By Iris Hunt

Somewhere roaming the vast wild-lands of Tsavo in Southern Kenya, There’s an Elephant who carries with her part of my heart. I haven’t seen her for many years now, but I think of her often Wondering if there’s any truth about Elephants “never forgetting.” Wondering in particular, if she might remember how it was with us At the perilous start of her life – a chance ill-matched pairing Of a substitute mother and lost waif of a child? I’ll never know…
Jomo Kenyatta

Jomo Kenyatta

The year is 1975 Kenya is still a young republic – just 12 years on from its New Age rite of passage to Uhuru – “freedom” – from British colonial rule.

Its first President, Jomo Kenyatta, is a figure of immense stature. He towers over the country, The Mzee – a wise, tough African greybeard – beating the air with an emblematic fly-whisk to make the point of an endlessly repeated rallying cry. Harambee, he harangues the crowds. “All pull together” – Black, Brown and White – towards his objective of a stable, disciplined “home-grown” democracy in the new Kenya.

Only the future would tell how strong this young Nation would prove facing the winds of change that now sweep the continent.

We too are oddly unaware of the magnitude of changes and challenges facing us.

Our friend, movie actor and conservationist Bill Holden, is back in Kenya to join us for a safari. Our mission is to help the fledgling wildlife authorities carry out a realistic survey of the impacts of the slaughter in the once game-rich “Northern Frontier District.”

The President himself is concerned, along with the world of conservationists at large. Demonstrably so, since he seeks our advice and assistance in countering the combined threats of the criminal plunder of a priceless national resource….

The Insurgents in the region have a political agenda, laying claim to parts of Kenya’s sovereign territory and aiming to destabilize the thinly-stretched provincial administration. But they are also driven by greed. With the price of ivory still soaring, the rogue bands of Shifta, as they’re called – “bandits” or “brigands” – are increasingly turning their modern, high-powered weapons on the defenseless elephants.

William Holden and Don Hunt

William Holden and Don Hunt

At first they restricted their operations to the far north where they were unlikely to be intercepted as they carried their loot to waiting ivory merchants across the border close to the coast. But with the elephant herds drastically reduced in these areas, the gangs are now more boldly raiding south down the eastern side of Lake Turkana as far as the important wildlife reserves of the Samburu district.

It is this open expanse of dry bush-land around the Mathews mountain range that we’re now transecting for the survey. And, as on many previous safaris, we both see and sense the effects of the insidious war of attrition on the wildlife – Elephants in particular.

It’s clear that there is a significant reduction in their numbers overall. The once great herds of a hundred or more have also broken up into much smaller groups and there is marked change in the behavior of the animals. In the past they would normally be unfazed by the approach of the safari vehicles. But now they are clearly nervous and sometimes aggressively “spooked” as soon as we appear in their line of vision.

We set off from camp at first light and, after a while, go off-track to investigate an ominous circling of vultures. Suddenly we come onto to an appalling, grizzly scene. A full-grown female Elephant lies slaughtered, bloody holes gouged out on either side of her trunk where the tusks have been crudely hacked out of the flesh of her cheeks.

Don Hunt with elephant carcass

Don Hunt with elephant carcass

No one speaks. The stillness is interrupted only by whirring buzz of flies over the barely dried, clotting blood. Vultures’ wings, flapping overhead, cast dark flickering ghostlike shadows as the hideous birds descend and fight for front position. They jostle aggressively, waiting for the moment to move in and start tearing on the soft parts of the carcass.

The scene of the murder of this majestic animal is horrific – unspeakably so, as we silently approach to determine exactly how she had been killed. We count 37 bullet holes in the one side of the head and body fully exposed to view.

She never had a chance, obviously gunned down in a hail of fire, and I feel intense shame for my own kind – the human low-life, Shifta no doubt, capable of such an act of primitive savagery.

Before anyone speaks, we discover another carcass nearby. A young bull, fallen onto its knees, brought down in its tracks in another summary execution. We then find a third slaughtered Elephant – and another. Four in all.

We are close to a track and see fresh tire marks. They must have come in a vehicle just before dawn. Almost certainly they used spotlights to illuminate the shadowy shapes of the huge bodies moving silently through the low desert bush. With no danger to themselves, they would have moved within range and opened up with their automatic weapons. A callous, easy, atrocious massacre.

I am sickened by the sight of it all, emotionally drained and physically inert. But then something makes me walk back to the lifeless body of the female matriarch we saw first. I look again and see that the teats between her front legs are swollen with milk.

But before I can alert the others, there’s a shrill, high pitched scream. The bush parts as a tiny baby Elephant rushes at me in a brave attempt to drive me off the prostrate mother. Her trunk and chest are splattered with blood and there’s a glistening of sweat from erupting glands on the side of her face.

But she’s unsteady on her feet as she charges and nearly falls, which triggers an instinctive defensive reaction from Don and Bill. Instantly the three of us grab the baby, stop the rush, but struggle to maintain a hold on her heavy, threshing body. It’s not easy. The little animal is screaming with rage at what she must perceive as her mother’s killers and there’s a perilous moment as Bill is knocked to the ground.

Elephants Maralal

But three of our African crew jump in to help and, with Bill immediately back in the fray, we quickly manage to restrain her. Shock drains the calf’s remaining strength and we can feel her legs tremble as she finally becomes calm.

It’s all happened in a few moments of adrenalin rush for us. But at what cost to the traumatized infant elephant, we will have to wait to find out. I take the chance to do a quick, superficial check and am relieved to see there’s no obviously injury on her trunk or anywhere else. The alarming blood on her body is evidently her mother’s.

There’s no telling, of course, what exactly happened when the assassins struck sometime in the hours before dawn. But it’s likely that they would have first carried out their killing spree, downing the four adults in the family group, then chasing off the little calf as they returned to her mother to hurriedly chop out the tusks. In the interim, in panic and confusion, the infant would have would have rubbed up against the prostrate body, smearing herself with blood oozing from the mothers wounds.

Once the gang had departed the scene, she would have returned and tried desperately to “wake” her mother and expended more energy in keeping the ever-menacing vultures at bay. Hence her weakened state at the point of the charge.

Now her trembling calm, almost catatonic, is seriously worrying. I’m well aware that shock can be a sudden killer, as with humans, and I fear the worst for this baby Elephant – motherless orphan as she is now.

It doesn’t take long to persuade Don and Bill to call off the safari there and then. I see doubt in their eyes, but they know it has to be done. The prospects are not good, but we must get the tiny calf back to the Ranch as fast as we can if it’s to have any chance of survival.

They immediately start work on digging out a ramp so that the baby can be more easily loaded into a backed-up Land-Rover. It’s a tricky job, but eventually she’s safely installed and with her head lying across my lap as we head off for Nanyuki.

I’m grateful to the men for giving it a try against the odds. And as if to will a positive outcome, with the light fading out a day I would never forget, I make a vow that, if she lives, my new charge would some day be returned to a natural life in the wild so summarily and cruelly cut short.

An Odd Love-Match

It was truly love at first sight. Motherly instincts overruled common sense and forged the ill-matched bonding of surrogate mother and orphaned Elephant that night on the journey back to the Ranch.

Iris Hunt with baby Mary elephant

Iris Hunt with baby Mary elephant

The poor creature sucked vainly on my hand much of the time and my heart sank when I felt only the beginnings of erupting molar teeth in the back of her mouth. She still had baby hair on her torso and although she was bulky in the body, I knew that – as with children – size is no certain measure of age. The critical indicator in this case was the still nascent molars.

It was too early to be sure, but the chances were that she wouldn’t be able to digest the kind of semi-solid foods I’d previously given to Elephant calves above six months old. They had been fine on a diet of milk porridge with vitamins, minerals and soft grass, etc.

We’d see, but I’d tried before with younger baby Elephant, as others had. The seemingly insuperable problem was the infant feed, with no substitute formula yet produced for mother’s milk.

We reached the Ranch well after dark and an indoor pen at the Orphanage was hastily made ready. Cold was a factor at the higher altitude on the slopes of Mount Kenya – at around 7,000 ft., compared the baby’s warmer climes in the north of 3,000 ft. or so. We compensated by putting three layers of straw on the ground and fixing up an overhead heater.

But still she looked forlorn lying in the corner of the pen and I decided to spend the night with her. I wasn’t to know that this would be just the first of many anxious, sleepless nights we would spend cuddled up together.

Out in the wild new-born baby Elephants are very vulnerable creatures and are constantly fussed over, not just by their mothers, but by the entire family.

It starts at the moment of birthing, when the older females of the family form a circle around the mother to protect and assist her delivery of the baby, deposited on the ground and immediately washed by many solicitous trunks. Until mother and baby are imprinted on each other, the “grandmas” and “aunts” are in constant attendance, watching that the infant doesn’t wander off and gently nudging it back to mother when it does start to stray.

Should there be any hint of danger, the family immediately forms a protective laager around the mother and child. The radiated warmth of the collective ring of bodies also helps regulate the calf’s body temperature, which in the first few weeks it can’t do itself.

Throughout that first night at the Orphanage, I kind of simulated the laager, wrapping my new charge round with blankets warmed with hot water bottles. There was no point in messing about with milk formulas – she was stressed enough. What she most needed at that point, I determined, was rest and reassurance.

But I did mix up an “energy drink” for her, just glucose and water, and she clearly relished the sweet liquid, sucking it off my hand and, later, tentatively and gently from the large teat of my “Buffalo Bottle.”

Don and Bill came to check on me, bearing sustenance – a drink, some food and my own set blankets. They didn’t even try to persuade me to go to bed.

Trial and Error

Over the next few days the little Elephant put up a brave show herself. It was as if she knew her life was in our hands and tried her utmost to respond positively, encouragingly even, to her new family’s efforts to meet her critical needs for nutrition, warmth and emotional support.

But it was all trial and error over the ensuing weeks. There were no text-books – no points of reference at all – on whatever it was, art or science, that was needed to keep a motherless infant elephant alive. No one in the world knew for sure how it might be done.

At first she seemed to thrive, gathering strength from a feed of a weak mix of formula milk we gave her whenever she wanted it. She was also happy to be out and about in the sun during the day and took to following me around all over the Orphanage.

Washing Mary elephant

By then I had brought in three extra staff for the routine work, assigning two of our best animal men to help me with the infant’s care. Between us – Nelson, Gitonga and I – kept her company and under surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

She had altogether pampered, round-the-clock protection, including from the risk of too much powerful Equatorial sun on her delicate baby skin. We applied a caking of mud as a “sun-blocker” and encouraged her to seek out the shade in the heat of the day. Later, when the air turned chill, she would be wrapped around with her equivalent “cuddle blanket.”

Although there was no way to fix her age with any certainty, I observed that she seemed to be at, or perhaps just over, the point of transition from total infant vulnerability. There was still short, sensory baby hair covering her trunk, but her ears, which would have been almost transparent at birth, were darkening significantly. My estimate was that she was then between three and four months’ old.

She seemed fairly steady on her feet on her perambulations round the Orphanage, which was also an encouraging sign. But at the same time, she hadn’t, as yet, got her coordination right with the long, floppy appendage of her trunk. She would wave it about wildly at some exciting happening or other, occasionally trip over it when she wasn’t watching her step, and suck on it like a big thumb or dummy comforter when she started to feel sleepy.

At one stage she delighted herself by managing, finally, to pick up small sticks and stones, and gaily tossing them around kept her amused for hours. But as for the serious business of the trunk – sucking up water for life-giving transport to the mouth – the baby was still seriously short of the requisite skills.

Mary the Elephant with Iris Hunt

Mary the Elephant with Iris Hunt

She was a total charmer, of course. Beguiling to both staff and visitors and showing a doe-eyed, ever-endearing special affection for me. Whenever I fed her, she would delicately twine a loving trunk around some preferably naked, more tactile part of my body. Or she would reach up, drape the damp proboscis round my neck, and draw my head down for a nuzzly kiss on the cheek. All this with a vocal accompaniment of all manner of grunts, squeaks, sighs and the like, usually followed by a rumbling “purr” which she’d taught us was her “most happy” sound.

But she was also liberal with her affections, clearly regarding all of us at the Orphanage as “family,” notably Don and the two full time keepers. If she didn’t exactly remember “Uncle Bill” – who knows? – she certainly showed she was pleased to see him whenever he flew in to visit her. He had also succumbed to her charms

As time went on, slowly and with some trepidation, I increased the strength of her formula milk diet, knowing that this is where the trouble could start. On the basis of experience – mine and others – I was aware that very young baby elephants invariably have trouble digesting these preserved fatty milk mixes, which should also have increasingly more nutritional substance in them to maintain steady growth in the calf.

Bouts of diarrhea can be expected at some stage, often so severe as to result in dehydration and serious risk of infection. Antibiotics will normally effect initial improvement in the condition, but as the cycle is repeated, the danger is that calf will lose more and more of its natural stomach flora until it weakens, irremediably, and dies. I was determined that, one way or another, it wasn’t going to happen to my orphaned ward.

A Precedent called ‘Eleanor’

There were two people I could immediately consult – good friends and neighbors, Bill and Ruth Woodley. Both had long experience and expertise in the care of wild animals, including baby elephants… And one in particular, a young female, who did survive and went on to achieve international distinction.

Her story starts in 1961 when Bill Woodley was Senior Park Warden for Kenya’s twin mountain parks, Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares. The colonial Governor at the time was Sir Patrick Renison, who had asked Bill to take him on up north on safari together with his wife, Lady Eleanor.

Elephant Mary with Don Hunt

Elephant Mary with Don Hunt

They were in Samburu one day, when two baby elephants were spotted stranded on one side of a sand lugga, turned into a roaring river in a flash flood. They wouldn’t be able to cross until the torrent subsided, by which time their family group might well have moved on.

Bill and his team went to the rescue, assisted enthusiastically by his eminent guests. The babies were duly captured, a male and a female, but it was thought too risky to try reuniting them with the herd. Bill decided to bring them straight down to his base at Nyeri, where Ruth immediately took charge. She named the one “Patrick” and the other “Eleanor.” Bill estimated them to be approximately 18 months of age.

Sadly they lost the male, but Eleanor thrived in Ruth’s care for more than a year. As she grew, Eleanor was even invited and taken to visit Government House (now State House) the official Residence, at the request of the Governor and her namesake. It was then decided the growing calf needed more space than they could provide and, by arrangement with fellow Warden David Sheldrick, she was taken down to the more “commodious” and climatically more suitable location at Voi in the hot, dry south-east of Kenya.

David had built an extensive complex there for his operations in the vast Tsavo East National Park. He had both the space and facilities, and he and his wife Daphne were delighted by the arrival of Eleanor.

The burgeoning young elephant was already well used to people – healthy, happy and affectionate – and, under Daphne’s meticulous care, Eleanor blossomed over the years to become a familiar stately matriarch at Park Headquarters.

QED! The Formula Works

But with regard to my own particular need for counsel on infant elephant rearing, Ruth Woodley was the oracle. She came up with what turned out to be a brilliant suggestion. Why not, she mused, try a special formula recently developed for human infants unable to tolerate animal fats?

We then took advice from several pediatricians and the consensus recommendation was for a branded product, in which otherwise standard animal fats had been substituted with natural vegetable oils from soya beans, sunflowers and palms. The formula seemed promisingly rich in both proteins and carbohydrates, supplemented with plenty of vitamins and minerals.

I decided straight away to give it a try, acquired a stock of the formula and introduced the calf to her new diet – starting with a weak mix and very slowly increasing the strength. Working on past experience, I figured that by hurrying things along too much, the result was likely to be two steps forward and three back. Much patience and carefully monitoring was called for.

As before, it was trial and error – but necessarily so, since no reliable data on the composition of a mother Elephant’s milk were then available. Again, I was hopeful at first – she seemed to be doing fine. But then disappointment struck when the dreaded diarrhea started.

This time – no antibiotics, I decided! The formula feed was also suspended, replaced with kaolin and rice water with the aim of firming up the stool. I also fed her the original fall-back solution of glucose, but now with an additional boost of electrolytes, minerals and vitamins. I knew there were plenty of these ingredients in an adult elephant’s diet, especially Vitamin C, and although there was no precise laboratory analysis, I just presumed they would be there in abundance in the mother elephant’s milk as well.

There was a worry, though, that the baby’s system might still not be able to process the crushed-up pills with which I laced the liquid feed. So, for insurance, I tried her on effervescent Vitamin C tablets with calcium and magnesium – and she loved those, sucking on them like a child on fizzy sherbet sweets.

Elephant Mary and Giraffe William

Elephant Mary and Giraffe William

In any event, something in the feed concoctions was working, because sores on the inside of her mouth began to abate and, happily, the luster again appeared in her eyes. The diarrhea was also checked to a degree, so I again started her on a slowly augmented milk formula. To be sure I’d have enough supplies for the “duration,” whatever that might be, I then imported supplies in bulk from Europe, including multivitamins vitamins that also pleasingly fizzed in her mouth.

There were a few more scares, but actually more ups than downs. It worked, finally. The formula DID substitute for mother’s milk. We’d cracked it! Or to be fair and accurate, Ruth had cracked it, and she and Bill were frequent visitors to check how the baby was doing. They gave me much encouragement and were clearly pleased to see our little boisterous Elephant thriving.

Forget all the sleepless nights, all the agonizing…I was convinced we were finally winning, It had all been worth it.

The Best Christmas Ever!

It was time to name the Elephant Don favored “Mary” after his mother in the States who had regularly relayed maternal advice and encouragement from the other side of the globe. “Gramma” Hunt, as she was known to all, had been confident all along. “Stick at it,” she’d said in effect. “You’ll work it out in the end.” She well deserved to have the newest family member named for her.

So Mary it was. Then, suddenly, it was Christmas. The time had flown since her arrival in the Orphanage and there she was, six months on – hale, hearty and getting more playfully boisterous by the day.

Elephant Mary with Don Hunt

Elephant Mary with Don Hunt

Mary and other matters around the Ranch had diverted us from any advance festive preparations, which this year were to be a haphazard, last minute affair. But Don produced a truly memorable “gift” for me, or anyway a “treat,” by bringing Mary up to the house to join us for her first Christmas on Mount Kenya – or anywhere on earth, of course.

She was soon best mates with the dogs out in the garden, literally having a ball with them – batting a small football up and down a water furrow. She also remembered her old trick of picking up and scattering small objects – rubber toys in this instance – and had the excited dogs running all over the place to retrieve them.

I took time to put up a beautiful tree. But I might have known..! Illuminating the glittering decorations proved a fatal attraction for the large, childlike house-guest who, in one unguarded moment, demolished the whole thing, sending lights, baubles, bells and the Christmas fairy flying in all directions.

She still got a treat at the festive lunch. Just this once, a slice of chocolate cake – or perhaps it was two. In any event, she was instantly a would-be “chocoholic,” and could sniff out the cake wherever it was hidden.

Educating Mary

Into the New Year, the register of guests at the Orphanage grew longer as more animal waifs and strays were brought in. The good-natured elephant welcomed them all, especially those prepared to join in the fun of mock charges and chases.

Elephant Mary with Iris Hunt

William, a young giraffe, became her all time favorite. The two made an odd, but inseparable pair of best friends. As the Twiga got taller, he needed to go walkabout to find and feed off the tender buds on the tops of thorn trees and the junior ndovu was his constant companion. A “right royal” couple, William & Mary, (namesakes, of course, of their former Britannic Majesties.)

Once she discovered where our house was, it was frequently on the itinerary for her own wandering “constitutionals.” As much as we loved her, an elephant in the living room – even a small one – was courting disaster (vide the Christmas tree.) It took a fair bit of head-shaking, finger-wagging and suchlike reprimands to stop her silently sneaking up on me.

Mary had no understanding of her own size. When she accidentally stepped on my foot one day I had a terrible time getting her to move, ending up with a sorely squashed toe. It was the moment for more lessons in elephant comportment around the more delicate animal species, but how to do it? How would I teach proper ladylike behavior to this happy little gentle giant of a clown?

Pondering the Problem and getting not very far, I just waited for inspiration…And it happened one day, when I saw her standing unsteadily on uneven ground. I gave her hefty shove – the kind of footballer’s shoulder charge she liked to dish out to me. That did it! Over she toppled, much to her surprise and evident pique at the loss of dignity.

Elephant Mary and Giraffe William

Elephant Mary and Giraffe William

A salutary lesson, as it transpired. For my size, I had maybe shown I was as strong as her real mother would have been. Or maybe she just got the point. In any event, from then on I got more respectfully “filial” nudges than barges from the chastened, wiser young Elephant.

We adopted the same sort of tutorial approach for the correction of other potentially hazardous misdemeanors. Like when she tried to hijack brooms from the keepers, for instance – another favorite amusement – she found herself “at the other end of the stick,” so to speak, warding of a faceful of bristles. It was more an undignified affront than an irritation, of course, but anyway effective. No more chasing after the utensils for the staff!

Elephant Mary and Giraffe William

Elephant Mary and Giraffe William

And no more flinging buckets for fun, either – another of the object lessons. They come back at you, she learned, this time with a faceful of water!

Instead, we gave her regular, less lethal toys and, having got the message, she dutifully – and soon happily – played with those. In fact she came to cherish her collection of rubbery sticks, rings, tires, etc, inventing her own “tricks,” which she found as rewarding as they were fun. So long as they did threaten to hurt any other creature, human or otherwise, her antics always drew praise and occasional treats from her keepers.

Of course, being the gregarious, sociable Mary, she wouldn’t be content with solitary games all the time. She expected all her animal friends to come play with her on demand – especially football, once she’d got the hang of it. The funny thing was, many of them earnestly tried to have a go, though none ever became as skilled a dribbling full-back as the talented little Elephant.

Elephant Mary and Giraffe William

Elephant Mary and Giraffe William

Time went on and, conscientiously, she kept learning “what was what” – in particular what was a firm “NO-no!” And one of those, emphatically, was rushing out to greet our landing on the airstrip after being away for a while. The warm sentiment was appreciated, of course, but I was terrified she’d make it onto the strip before the plane did, or onto the parking lot before I had time to switch off the engine.

But in the end we made it through the perilous, two-year-old “toddler” phase without serious injury to all or any. Then one day, soon after her third birthday, the long awaited tusks I’d felt growing internally finally sprouted from under her lip.

They would grow handsomely over the years she would still be with us at the Orphanage.

‘Her Excellency’

Mary would also become a great ambassador for her own kind, both as a point of reference for the naturally gentle nature and intelligence of the African Elephant and, more importantly, a focal point of public attention to the plight of the species, still under serious threat from relentless poaching for Ivory in Africa.

She graciously received countless visitors to the Orphanage – some of them Very Important Persons, from Royals to film stars, Heads of State to the world’s most eminent animal scientists. But the fact is that she showed a marked preference for “fun” parties of children – and in that, like everything else, she was well indulged. The Orphanage was then hosting well over 5,000 local school-children a year on wildlife awareness “field trips” we’d organized.

Stefanie Powers with Wildlife Minister Maina Wanjigi

Stefanie Powers introduces Mary to Tourism and Wildlife Minister Maina Wanjigi

Mary was always the star of their visit, of course and she was unfailingly amiable and gentle with them all – with the smallest kids especially, allowing them all to crowd round, stroking, patting and poking at will. It was though she understood that in the case of children and wild animals, “familiarity breeds conservation,” or at least positive appreciation.

For this reason, more than anything else, we were in no rush to dispense with her “services to the cause” by returning her to the wild where she belonged. So long as she remained a role model for the youngsters, a kind of benign educator, we always thought to give her just another year. And then a little longer…

Until suddenly, almost overnight, she was so big that we knew it was time.

Time for me to carry out the vow I’d made to Don, Bill, myself – and to the infant Mary herself – on that long, heart-stopping first night of the journey down from Samburu.

In the end, if she lived, she would be free one day to roam her natural habitat for what, we could only hope, would be the rest of her natural life.

Click here for Part 2 of this story
Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy