Nick Galpine introduces us to the lovable characters who make up the Abu Herd...
Cathy – the wise and gentle matriarch
Cathy was born in Uganda in 1960, the same year that Abu was born in South Africa. She was captured in Murchison Falls National Park as a baby and Abu Camp founder Randall Moore found her at a zoo in Toronto, Canada and brought her first to Knysna in South Africa for the filming of “Circles in a Forest”. Following the completion of this film, based on the on the classic novel by Dalene Matthee, Moore had intended to try and introduce Cathy and her co-stars, Abu and Benny, to the remaining wild elephants in the Knysna Forest. However, the then South African government blocked this plan and he was obliged to move, along with the elephants, to Botswana. This turned out to be an auspicious move as it was in Botswana’s Okavango Delta that Randall Moore was able to start the very first elephant-back safaris in Africa.
Cathy’s stable temperament, wisdom and gentleness made her the natural matriarch and she has always had a steadying influence on the Abu herd, particularly on the youngsters. She keeps them in order with a firm hand (or should that be trunk) but allows them to follow their naturally playful instincts.
Shireni – the doting mother
A survivor of one of the elephant culls which used to take place in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Shireni has put this trauma behind her and successfully raised two male calves both of whom have since been successfully introduced into the wild in northern Botswana.
Shireni was one of the original “brat pack” of six young elephant orphans saved from the culling operation (which was ended in Kruger in 1994). Her name means “where the old cows meet” and Shireni is noted for being a very doting mother. Naturally calm, patient and loving, she is a great favourite among the elephant handlers as well as being a model of maternal care.
It was appropriate then that the first calf to be born at Abu Camp, Raditlou Wantha, was hers. Sadly Raditlou was two months premature and did not survive, succumbing to complications after just 13 days. Shireni subsequently mated with wild elephant bulls in the Abu Concession and presented the camp first with Pula (“Rain”) and then “baby Abu” – both lively young bulls who have since been reintroduced to the wild.
Baby Abu – now known as Abu Junior – although no relation to his famous namesake, carries Abu’s legacy on the next stage of his and our journey towards a greater understanding of the conservation needs of elephants in northern Botswana and beyond.
Lorato – the big sister
Firstborn of the late Kitimetse, Lorato is a quick learner and has formed a strong bond with each of the subsequent arrivals in the herd. She was born in 2008, just a few days shy of Valentine’s Day which gave rise to her name, a derivation of the Setswana word for love.
Brimful of personality and a fast learner, Lorato quickly made friends in the Abu herd, particularly with Naya (since introduced into the wild), Paseka and Warona. She enjoys being the “big sister” to all the
youngsters and is the biological older half-sister of Naledi, who is five and half years her junior.
Warona – the playful one
Warona is Shireni’s fourth calf and over time has become more playful and sociable. She was born a week before Christmas in 2011 and the elephant handlers named her Warona, which is a Setswana name meaning “For Us”. Originally she spent a lot of time with Cathy, walking at the front of the herd, but as she grew older she began to mingle more with the rest of the herd and the guests.
Her “sisters”, Lorato and Paseka, play with her and generally try to keep her out of trouble – although they are not always successful!
Paseka – the orphan
Found at Abu’s sister camp, Seba, after a hyaena attack caused her wild herd to abandon her in April 2009, Paseka (whose name means “Easter”, the day she was found at Seba) was adopted by Shireni and went on to feature in her own movie!
Paseka took refuge from the marauding hyaena in the generator room of Seba Camp, perhaps gaining comfort from the elephantine rumblings of the old diesel generator. No-one had the heart to “let nature take its course” and so she was taken to Abu where her wounds were treated and Shireni, who was lactating at the time, duly adopted her.
Watch the trailer of “Paseka – The Easter Elephant” here.
The film follows her first year at Abu Camp, learning daily what it means to be an elephant. What is instinctive? What is she taught by the elephants? What does she need to learn from the human members of the Abu herd and how does her arrival change the herd dynamics?
Naledi – the star
Given how her life has unfolded, it is fortunate that Naledi inherited a survivor gene from her mother, Kitimetse. Kiti, as she was fondly called, was found abandoned by a wild herd in the Okavango after being attacked by a crocodile as a baby. She was taken to Abu Camp for treatment and it was there that she acquired the name Kitimetse, which means “I am lost” in Setswana. She made a full recovery and went on to form a close bond with Gikka and Shireni. She was famous for her “blowing kisses” and gentle demeanour.
Kiti is known to have mated with Mafunyane and, in early 2008, gave birth to Lorato. Shortly after giving birth to Naledi on November 27th 2013 she sadly passed away. Her legacy lives on in Lorato and her lastborn, Naledi. After losing her mother at the age of just six weeks, Naledi has had a remarkable turn-around, being hand-raised by the Abu team and stealing everyone’s hearts with her larger-than-life personality.
Naledi means “Star” in Setswana and it was an obvious choice as she was born on a very starry night. Her name has proved doubly apt as Naledi is anything but shy. She actively seeks human attention and affection even if she has to knock people over in her infectious enthusiasm!
Kiti’s death came as a blow to the entire Abu herd and especially the elephant handlers (who had spent countless days with her over the years) and the wider Abu community who had known Kiti to be one of the most gentle and perceptive of all the elephants.
The greatest burden of sorrow and loss inevitably fell on the orphaned calf. It was hoped that one of the other adult females, Shireni, would adopt her as she was still producing milk for her own calf, Warona.
Naledi attempted to suckle from Shireni (who had adopted another orphaned calf in the past, Paseka) for a few days but Shireni’s two-year old calf soon became restless as she felt that she was not receiving enough milk herself, and so she pushed Naledi away. When Shireni saw Warona’s reaction, she followed suit.
Naledi then attempted to suckle from the herd’s matriarch, Cathy, who had famously nursed Warona in the past. But this time, due to Cathy’s age and the fact that she had never borne a calf of her own, she did not have enough milk to meet Naledi’s needs. Naledi grew dangerously weak and by the second week after Kiti’s death, had lost an estimated 30 kg.
It was therefore decided that it was too risky to keep Naledi with the herd. Separating her would be socially distressing but hopefully it would make her more amenable to being bottle-fed. She was placed under the care of handlers 24 hours a day.
Meanwhile, schoolchildren in the nearest town, Maun, rallied round to collect two-litre soft drinks bottles for feeding Naledi and just four months after the loss of her mother, Naledi was back in stable health.
By May 2014, the elephant handlers and researchers judged that the time was right to re-introduce Naledi to the Abu herd for the first time - a cause of much celebration amongst elephants and humans alike.
In November 2014, Naledi celebrated her first birthday with a sugar cube cake specially “baked” for her by elephant handlers Wellington and AKA, and lots of attention.
Naledi is now notorious for stealing hats and hearts, and has become a firm favourite with Abu Camp guests. She has an avid following on social media, all of which she is of course blissfully unaware as she consumes more and more milk each day and grows bigger, stronger and even more lovable all the time: our precocious and precious elephant calf!