We find the elephant pressed back against her mother’s side and Uncle Rob brings her down with a single dart. That’s the easy part. Next Samuel brings a thick piece of canvas; it takes six rangers to roll her onto it. The material strains under the weight as they half lift, half drag her back to the camp. Every twenty steps or so the men are forced to stop and new carriers take their place. Once inside the camp, a crowd of people push around to take a look at the elephant and the progress becomes even slower, until my uncle shouts for a path to be cleared to the enclosure.
Ngwenya camp has a particularly good animal enclosure, used when animals are relocated or released into the wild from breeding programmes. My father had had the enclosure built and, in his time, it was used to house many different species, predominantly antelope and even some of the smaller cats. My uncle, however, has made almost no use of it, too occupied with learning the demands of his new role and fighting the increasing tide of poaching. Neema is the first occupant in over a year.
The men carry her to the inner enclosure and roll her onto the straw-covered floor. They stand around for a while, but as they realise the drug’s effects aren’t wearing off yet, they slip away to their duties. Eventually only Samuel, Jabu, Uncle Rob and I are left by her side. The joy of the morning has worn off for me as the enormity of what we are trying to do finally sinks in.
“What now, Rob?” Samuel asks.
“I called Adriaan about an hour ago. He was at Umlani, but said he’d try get here as soon as possible.”
I remember the Park’s vet from my father’s days. A big, bearded Afrikaans man, my father often called him out to help with the releases.
True to his word, the vet’s battered land-rover screeches to a halt less than half an hour later, blowing up a whirlwind of dust. Jabu and I stay inside with Neema, but I can hear Adriaan’s booming voice greet Uncle Rob and Samuel outside.
The men are deep in conversation, but their words stop as they come through the door.
“Ag tog!” Adriaan’s gaze is on me. “This must be Greg’s little girl.” His big hand comes to rest on my shoulder. “I still remember giving you rides on my back. Look at you now, all grown up.”
I feel a blush rising to my cheeks.
“And Sammy? This one must be yours. She’s got that same intelligent forehead.” He laughs heartily as he shakes Jabu’s hand.
His attention now turns to the elephant and instantly the laughter is gone. He goes down on his knees, hands moving silently over her face, trunk and mouth. Finally he stands, his expression sombre.
“Doesn’t look good, Boet,” he says to my uncle. “To begin with she’s dehydrated.” He looks over at me and Jabu as he says, “Baby elly’s need their mother’s milk for almost two years, you know?”
I want to say yes I know, I’m a game ranger’s daughter, but instead I say, “So, you can put up a drip, can’t you?”
His eyes flick to Uncle Rob before finding my face. “Ja, we could maybe get her through another day like that. But what about tomorrow, and the day after that? She’s not much more than eighteen months. She can’t survive without milk.”
“What about formula?” Dad and I once nursed a baby monkey we found on some infant formula.”
“Elephant’s milk is very different to human milk,” Uncle Rob’s voice breaks through.
“So what do we do?” My voice rises as I look from Uncle Rob to Adriaan. “What are you saying?”
“There’s only one thing to do, Anna,” Uncle Rob says.
“We’ve got to put her down,” Adriaan finishes, and I suddenly know what they were talking about as they came in.
“No!” I turn on my uncle, angrier than I’ve ever been. “If that was your plan all along, why didn’t you just let the lions get her? I thought you wanted to save her too.”
I want to run, to get as far away as I can from my uncle’s betrayal and hide the tears now coursing down my face. But I have to stay and protect Neema. Next to me Jabu is crying too, and her father is reaching for her, pulling her close.
“It’s the kindest thing to do Anna,” Uncle Rob is saying. “There’s no other way.”
“Wait!” I suddenly remember something my father once told me. “There’s an orphanage for elephants in Kenya. They’ve worked out a formula that keeps the baby’s alive. I’ll find out how to make it!”
The men are still shaking their heads.
“Dad would have done it.” My words are cruel and I see the hurt on Uncle Rob’s face, but at that moment all I care about is keeping Neema alive.
I win that battle and, against Adriaan’s counsel, Uncle Rob eventually decides to give Neema one more day. The vet sets up a drip that will re-hydrate her and keep her sedated, and a ranger is left to monitor her. Jabu and I rush to the computer to Google everything we can about caring for baby elephants.
Neema makes it through that first day, and by the next morning Jabu and I have the recipe for the elephant formula, even managing to convince Aunt Christy to drive fifty-five kilometres to the nearest town to buy the ingredients. Back at home we carefully measure it out in a bucket and then put the liquid in the giant horse-bottle Aunty Christy bought.
We almost trip over each other in our enthusiasm to get to the enclosure, but as I see Adriaan’s land rover fear claws at my throat. Could he and Uncle Rob have followed through on their plan? My fears prove unfounded. Far from being dead, Neema is up on her feet. I let out a whoop of joy at this small triumph, but then I see Uncle Rob’s worried face.
“What is it Uncle Rob?”
The elephant stands still momentarily—swaying slightly—and then throws herself against the steel fence that separates us. We watch as, again and again, she lopes around and crashes into one of the four fences.
“Why is she doing that?” Jabu asks.
“Elephants have a lot of the same emotions we do,” Adriaan answers. “I think she’s confused.”
“No,” I say, knowing precisely what makes you feel so lost and numb that pain is a respite. “She’s grieving.”
Read Part 4 of Orphaned Grace