The Tale of Timisa

For two weeks, the orphaned elephant wandered through the hot wilderness alone, her mother gone, her herd nowhere to be seen. It’s a dangerous world out there for a barely weaned elephant and this youngster was in grave danger.

Fortunately for her, her guardian angels were looking out for her, and after two weeks on her own in Umbabat Nature Reserve near Kruger National Park, she was rescued by Elephants Alive. She was taken to Camp Jabulani near Hoedspruit.

An elephantine predicament

Adine Roode, owner of Camp Jabulani, tells Timisa’s story: “On 19 November 2016, I got an urgent message to contact Michelle Henley of Elephants Alive: an elephant calf, presumed to be two years old, had been found wandering on its own… the mother was presumed to have died two weeks earlier. Assuming that the calf was about two years old, this would mean that it was probably almost weaned. But without much more information, we were left with a bit of a predicament as to where to place it.

“Should we prepare a boma at HESC (Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre), which is better equipped for orphaned and physically compromised animals? Or should it be introduced to the Camp Jabulani elephant herd – the best solution for a stronger animal as it minimises the human imprint. Just over a year ago we’d upgraded Camp Jabulani’s elephant stables to accommodate an ageing herd so we didn’t have the ideal infrastructure to accommodate a young orphan. However, my gut instinct told me that this youngster should go to Camp Jabulani…”

With help from the grooms and management, Camp Jabulani quickly revamped an area at the stables. Steel structure edges were ground off so the young elephant couldn’t hurt itself, and a boundary on the structure’s two open sides was made with balls of grass usually used for bedding and elephant food. A huge risk to young elephants is a dangerously low body temperature caused by trauma and stress, so a canvas “door” was hung to keep out wind and a heater and infrared lights were put up – safely out of reach of curious little trunks. All that was left was for the guest to arrive.

Welcome home, baby girl

It wasn’t long before two Elephants Alive vehicles and the vet arrived. The calf was sedated and lying on her side in the back of the vehicle, two people flanking her. No time was wasted in rushing the orphan back to her new lodgings at the stables; she was carefully placed on a canvas carrier to take her out of the vehicle and helped onto her four legs, as her sedation hadn’t fully worn off yet. A towel was draped around her head (to reduce stress) and she was guided to the new boma area next to the stables.

Adine explains that the other elephants were due back from their day out on the reserve and, as the boma and stables were only separated by a fence, there was no doubt that they’d smell and hear the new baby. “She was quite vocal, and as the sedation quickly wore off, she paced around the room,” recalls Adine. “She soon found a weak link in our haystack barrier and forced herself into the space. Although we tried to keep her calm she had discovered an ‘open spot’ and was curious to see where it led to.

“The herd returned and, as usual, made themselves comfortable, feeding on their freshly cut leaves and branches. Although they responded to the young elephant’s rumbles from time to time, they did not show any sign of discomfort at the ‘intruder’. About two hours later, we decided to move the calf into the shed with the lucerne.

“While leading her out of her temporary boma, we passed Fishan, Bubi and Zindoga; they trumpeted and became much more inquisitive about this newcomer. The young calf between us also did her fair share of trumpeting in response! Although it took just seconds, it felt like ages before we got to her new lodgings and closed the door with bales of hay again. We were so gratified when the baby elephant ate the bana grass we offered (and which she seemed to love!) and slurped water from the bucket.”

First night blues

The elephant had not yet developed tusks so her age was estimated to be around 10 months and, although she was thin, she wasn’t weak. She was happy eating solids. She clearly had a very strong will to survive!  

As the young orphan was brought to us by Michelle Henley from Elephants Alive, Adine gave her the honour of naming the baby. She chose the name Timisa, which means courageous in XiTsonga, one of South Africa’s local dialects. This is such an appropriate name for her, as it took courage for her to survive. Her fighting spirit was clear from the moment we met her. Soon it was time for this courageous newcomer to go to bed… but that was easier said than done.

Adine explains that Timisa would spend her first night with elephant handler Joshua. “I stayed with them until just after 1AM; at this point Timisa was still wide awake. Whenever she tired, she lay next to either Joshua or me but would quickly get up before sleep overtook her. I returned at 5AM to find that neither she nor Joshua had slept a wink. It seems she didn’t trust herself (or us) enough to fall asleep just yet. Tigere took over from Joshua at 5AM. By now she was used to both Joshua and me and was less than impressed with the new person in her space.

“Shortly before 6AM, the other elephants left their stables for their daily activities. Tigere and I decided that it was time to introduce Timisa to the herd. Being in a semi-natural environment with her own kin was the best thing for her.”

Meeting Timisa

Later in the day, the Camp Jabulani elephant herd was gathered just outside the stables for the big introduction. “We escorted the little one out of her quarters, down the hill to the waiting elephants… waiting but unaware of what was coming their way. We initially covered her eyes to minimise her stress but this young lady is no wilting flower! She started to ‘trot’ downhill at a pace and the towel was soon flapping in her wake.

“We tried directing her to one side so the elephants could be introduced one by one, but, being the strong-willed baby that she is, she turned and decided to walk to the other side of the herd instead. This could have gone either way. It was with pounding hearts that we waited to see what the trumpeting and agitated elephant mass would yield: an orphaned elephant dead or alive.

“Then, Timisa turned around and went straight to Fishan. He is mammoth in size compared to this little one and was trumpeting the loudest of all the elephants. But Timisa was undeterred by his size or the noise. Heart in my throat I thought: What will he do with her?

“Fishan reached out his strong trunk while we waited with bated breaths. Then he brought little Timisa under his huge bulk in a protective gesture. Tokwe and Lundi joined – and soon the rest of the herd followed, forming a close circle around the little elephant. The herd was still trumpeting loudly and we all had goosebumps and were choked with tears. It was surreal! Timisa then attached herself to Tokwe… and this mother-of-our-herd stopped to let her drink.

“I hadn’t planned for this swift introduction, but then again, I also hadn’t planned on taking in an orphaned elephant the evening before. Life does not always go according to plan…

“As the day drew to a close, both man and elephant in our happy space, we were beyond emotion. I was validated about my life’s purpose: THIS is why I do what I do!”

The little one leads the herd

Timisa soon became the centre of attention with the elephants, says Adine. “Tokwe, Lundi and Limpopo could not stop touching and stroking Timisa; if she was not underneath them, they were caressing her with their trunks. Whenever she stopped, the whole herd gathered around her, except for Zindoga and Mambo. They must either have felt threatened by her or just annoyed at having to share the spotlight.

“Like most babies, she would put anything in her mouth and was super-curious about her environment, sniffing the area around her constantly. At one stage Sebakwe (our Amarula celebrity) knelt in front of her, looking her in the eye. We will never know what they shared during that moment; we can only guess.

“We followed the herd, observing the interactions between elephants that have all come from different backgrounds but have found a home here at Camp Jabulani. They walked for miles that day, stopping several times at new pools of water that the recent rain had blessed us with, using the opportunities for the little one to rest and drink.

“That afternoon, we split the herd, keeping the females with the baby on one side and the bulls a few metres away. The little one didn’t take a nap or lie down once during that day but she was feeding well and tried nursing from both Tokwe and Lundi a few times (although both of their babies are older, they may well still have a bit of milk left in them). The milk we’ve gotten from them for our milk formula research analysis has been extremely watery so we knew we’d have to closely monitor Timisa to ensure she didn’t get glycaemia.

“My mother always reminds me that nothing in life is planned. Jabulani’s arrival; the elephants from Zimbabwe; Kumbura, who also arrived as an orphan in 2008; and now Timisa. This herd will play an important role in the lives of other orphaned elephants, just like Timisa.”