Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Nina's Story

Nina and her calf in the wild

Successful rescue and rehabilitation back to the wild

For 27 years, Nina the elephant lived in a small enclosure in a private zoo in Northern Tanzania. Then, in 1998 her owner approached Born Free and asked if we might be able to come up with a plan to return Nina to the wild. Nina was clearly frustrated by captivity and longed for companions of her own kind.  It is incredibly difficult to move an elephant and most people thought it would be impossible to return an elephant that had been held captive for so many years to the wild. But Born Free was determined to prove them wrong, assembling a team of experts led by Born Free CEO Will Travers and inviting the BBC to film the move for their popular ‘Born to be Wild’ TV series.

With the help of Born Free Patron, Martin Clunes, elephant expert Clem Coetsee and wildlife legend Tony Fitzjohn, the carefully planned move went ahead, with Nina's welfare the top priority.  Loading her into the special travelling crate was tricky but she was soon on her way, transported by members of the Kenya Wildlife Service on Hannibal – the massive elephant transport truck previously donated to KWS by Born Free. What must Nina have been thinking? Little did she know that her life was about to change forever!

10 hours after leaving the zoo near Arusha, Nina arrived at Tony Fitzjohn’s headquarters in the remote Mkomazi National Reserve. She was quickly unloaded into a special holding pen or ‘boma’ where she could gradually get used to her new surroundings. We were all amazed at how calmly she had taken the journey and how quickly she settled in.

After a couple of days we decided to open the door to her boma and to give Nina the chance to take her first steps back to the wild. The door was opened and… Nina just stood there looking. And she did exactly that for nearly 10 weeks! The door was open. She could have left any time, but she didn’t. We were in no hurry. We all felt confident that, when she was ready, Nina would take her first giant step to freedom but we were going to let her take her time.

Then one day it happened. She simply walked out through the open door.

The whole story was brilliantly captured on film by the BBC, including the real bond of affection and love that had built up between Nina and Martin

When Martin told her story in Born To Be Wild, 13 million BBC viewers delighted in the tale.

Over the years, Nina adapted well to the wild, learning to forage for food and only occasionally returning to Tony’s camp for water and the odd banana.  Importantly, it seemed clear that she had successfully linked up the wild elephants of Mkomazi.

In November 2003 Born Free received wonderful news. Nina had successfully given birth to a male calf, light-heartedly named Jonny Wilkinson as he appeared on the same day that England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup. 

Sadly, in October 2007, Nina died.  She had been seen looking slightly out of sorts and when her body was found, about 1 km from the area where she had been released,  It was clear that she had died in labour. The autopsy showed that her second calf was stuck round the wrong way and was the cause of her death. The news was devastating but evidence suggests that this situation is not especially rare and has been known to cause fatality in otherwise healthy wild elephants.

Obviously, this was enormously sad news but, as with so many wildlife stories, we must look for the positives, and there are many.  Nina had ten years living the life of a wild elephant; she successfully gave birth to her male calf, who was fully weaned, very healthy and has been subsequently seen with a bachelor group of males; her story proves that after more than 20 years in a zoo an elephant can go back to the wild and that this could be a solution for other elephants in the future;

I am sure that Nina’s story, filmed by the BBC for Born to be Wild and presented by Martin Clunes, helped put Mkomazi (her wild home in Tanzania) and the work of Tony Fitzjohn on the map. In 2008, the Mkomazi National Reserve was upgraded to National Park status giving its long-term, additional security.

Born Free is very proud to have played such a key role in Nina’s return to the wild. We put a lot of effort into raising funds and solving logistic problems in order to prove that this could be done and, most importantly, in order to make a huge difference to the quality of life of a wild animal.

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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