How an orphaned baby elephant overcame tragedy to lead her own herd

This elephant collar, held by Save The Elephants’ Research Assistant, Benjamin Loloju Ltibikishe, was once worn by a great matriarch of the Swahili family called Khadija. During the poaching crisis of 2011/2012, she was the only remaining female – the last matriarch – left in the herd that roamed around the south side of Buffalo Springs, not far from Samburu. A mother to three babies, she was a compassionate and special elephant who had earlier adopted her niece, the baby Habiba, after her mother was killed by poachers when Habiba was only a few months old.

In 2011, Khadija was found wandering around in Samburu in a great state of distress with four or five gunshot wounds in her body. It was obvious that poachers had tried to kill her for her tusks and failed. The Save The Elephants team treated Khadija for her wounds, removing the bullets  and also collared her so they could track her movements and learn more about her behaviour.

Sadly Khadija returned to the same place she’d been earlier shot and two weeks later, the STE team discovered she’d been hunted again and this time the poachers had been successful. They had hacked off her tusks and left her body to rot – a shocking and disrespectful ending for this gentle giant and a heart-breaking loss for her babies. Incredibly the poachers had also shot at Khadija’s collar hoping to destroy the tracking technology that might identify them. Their attempts were unsuccessful and STE was able to get crucial information about where Kadija had been killed. Unfortunately they were unable to capture the culprits responsible for her brutal killing.

Khadijah was about 45 years old when she died. She left behind four orphan elephants, a male calf and three females including 12 -year -old Habiba who had already witnessed her own mother, all the grown-up females in her family and now her aunt/adoptive mother murdered by poachers. Amazingly, and at such a tender young age, Habiba took leadership of her remaining family: her cousins Layla, Hadithi and a young male calf called Swahili Boy and ran back with the little herd to Samburu for safety.

There they came across a tuskless old matriarch from the Spices family called Cinnamon who took the little family into her care.  Habiba and the orphans have grown up with the Spices for the past three years but in 2013,  Habiba had her first baby. Since then, she’s been seen wandering off with her baby and the other Swahili Family orphans from time to time and the STE team are curious to find out whether she will break away from the Spices and start her own herd or stay where she is.

Habiba (with collar) and her baby in Samburu National Park. Picture by Hunter Listwin

In 2013, Habiba was fitted with a GPS tracking collar. Her collar will help answer lots of questions such as what areas and corridors she relies on, what areas she avoid such as those where her family were poached and the collar will also alert Save the Elephants if Habiba runs into trouble. 

Habiba has witnessed such terrible loss and despite being far too young to take on responsibility of matriarch to an elephant family, has proven herself to be one incredibly intelligent and special little elephant.

In the meantime Khadija’s collar with the bullet hole remains in the Save The Elephants research camp as a reminder of the terrible and constant loss of elephant life and the desperate and disturbing measures poachers take to conceal their illegal activities.

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