The Death Of A Beautiful Orphaned Elephant: Her True Story

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An elephant left the others, walked with determined steps, stopped, put her trunk in the car, touched Onen and then walked around and did the same to me. She leant on the car and went to sleep. The elephant had not forgotten her nannies.

[Cry Our Beloved Earth]

We called her "Nile" while others called her "Mary".

Here is her story.

Some years ago, whilst studying elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park I came across calves that were abandoned. Some were rescued and sadly others were not.

Nile, luckily was saved and she's been featured in documentaries. Her story evokes what it is like to be an orphan through much of Acholiland.  

Something repugnant happened. The fact is that Nile is dead. Apparently she died from poisoning.

The fame of the orphaned elephant, Nile, began as my field assistant Marcel Onen, now deceased, and I drove towards Kasenyi area. Then whenever people saw the green Suzuki vehicle that was part of the landscape, they waved me down. By the roadside we often talked about wildlife issues and discussed how they could help. However, that morning cyclists waved me down frantically.
"There is an elephant in Hamukungu," one cyclist said and another added, in Kiswahili, "Tembo yako iko Hamukungu," meaning " Your elephants are in Hamukungu." I drove to the place I had often encountered elephants and saw fresh elephant droppings, footprints and other signs. I went to the fishermen and they told me that elephants had crossed to the Island. However a child said: "A baby elephant wandered into the village, we gave it bananas and something to drink."

He pointed to where he last saw the elephant. We walked in the bush and there were fresh elephant signs. Then I spotted an elephant lying in a shade. I nudged her up; she was dehydrated and could barely stand.

She had been fed the local alcoholic brew. We gave her water and coaxed her to follow us into the village. Onen stayed with her and I returned to Mweya and told the Chief Warden.

A baby elephant weighs over 200 pounds. We got a truck and loaded her on it. At Mweya we put her in the hangar. She passed out urine and it was cloudy, quite unlike that of normal elephants. We put some ampicillin in bananas and fed her. She fell asleep and was wrapped up.

That night, Onen and I kept vigil over her. We fed her baby milk and more water. After she gained her strength, Onen and I took her for walks and in the evening we led her back. We introduced her to vegetation.

Over days that followed, she regained her strength and began to wander around the employees' quarters. She walked on water vessels; she emptied waste bins, and put her trunk inside houses looking for food.

Yet people liked her. She was growing and becoming a star in the making. Months later, a group of elephants visited Mweya. We waited for Nile in vain. I prayed that she had made the right decision to join her kin.

However, on our daily reconnaissance we still looked out for her. If she was with the semi-permanent aggregation of elephants what family had taken her in? If not, was she safe and most of all, would she remember her nannies?

My queries were answered one day, during my 12-hour observation of elephants in Kasenyi near Lake George. As the elephants emerged from behind bushes I wrote down the individuals that were present.

As I was writing more notes Onen said, in Acholi, "Byek ngat ma tye kany?" meaning, "Guess who is here?"

An elephant left the others, walked with determined steps, stopped, put her trunk in the car, touched Onen and then walked around and did the same to me. She leant on the car and went to sleep. The elephant had not forgotten her nannies.

I carried on with observations and noted what the other elephants were doing. As she snored, the vehicle rocked. We waited. She woke up, walked off towards the other elephants and there was a dent on the side of the car.

The sun went down with practiced bravado and the elephants blended with the darkness. I checked my watch; my last entry for the day read: "Nile with a group of elephants in Kasenyi area."

The story of Nile is brought home in what follows--and it behoves me to leave you with a speech my son Joe gave to his fellow students. He talked about his childhood pet and the world’s largest land mammal, the African elephant.

He talked about elephant habitats, life in a family unit and elephant relationship with humans. This is an excerpt:

"As in India where elephants are seen as gods, the African elephant is a totem to some African cultures. Until the ivory trade elephants were not endangered, now they live in small areas of the land that they once roamed. Now a lot of the elephant population is forced to live in protected parks and game reserves because of loss of habitat from increased human development and poaching. Dr. Abe quotes in her thesis, that between 1979 and 1989, Africa’s elephant population went from roughly 1.3 million to 609,000. Elephant young cannot survive without their mothers because they need to nurse and it is because of poaching that I was able to get Nile. Her mother’s family members were killed and she was orphaned. She did not have the support of other females. Nile was abandoned as her mother did not know how to look after her, so my mother and I took her in. Growing up with an elephant, not only did I get the opportunity to learn about a species of animal that is relatively unknown to children in the US, but aside from in zoos, very few even get to see them. Nile was a great pet; she just couldn’t necessarily fit in my lap."

Dr. Eve Lawino Abe is an Ethologist and Wildlife Consultant

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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