The Elephant Orphanage: Nairobi, Kenya

by Donatella Malfitano

The Elephant Orphans
They arrive happily trotting, following in a line behind their keepers. The show soon starts. Eight newborn elephants hungrily start drinking from the giant baby bottles filled with the special milk prepared for them—milk that will help them survive. Then, once their bellies are full and they feel satisfied, there is nothing better than playing with a ball and rolling in the mud. The sight is quite special and very sweet. Even the slightly uncomfortable feeling of participating in a tourist attraction is, in the end, completely absorbed by the acknowledgement of the sad realities and stories that lie behind each elephant calf.

Most of them have been orphaned because of the usual tragedies of Africa: poaching, drought, "culling" practices (the infamous and disputable elephant herds management tool) and shrinking habitats. All of these have been decimating wildlife in Kenya in recent years.

The calf named "Chyulu," for example, was found trapped in a rapidly drying waterhole, which also happened to be a hot spot for poaching since it was the last place to dry out during the dry season. And the female elephant who was believed to be his mother was found dead, killed by poachers only a few days before. Chyulu was only five months old when he was rescued in the Chyulu National Park and transported to the Infant Elephant Nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi.

Then there is the story of "Turkwel," dramatically rescued somewhere close to the South Turkana Reserve, one of the most dangerous frontier areas of conflict in Kenya. Here, the tribes of the Turkana and Pokot are permanently and heavily immersed in conflict, fighting over land, livestock and scarce natural resources. By consequence, wildlife survival is never easy in a war zone. Elephants are among the main targets, with their tusks sold on the ivory market (and also used as barter for guns), their meat consumed by all those, including the fighters, affected by the severe drought that has been so severely hitting the country in recent years.

Like Chyulu and Turkwel, many other calves up to three years old are rescued by the teams of the Trust and brought to the Elephant Orphanage, which represents a main part of the organisation. In some cases, like in that of the baby "Pesi," rescued when he was just two days old, they are just innocent newborns and their struggle for survival is even harder (Pesi died after four months). At the center, the young elephants are assisted in their fight for survival; the goal is to help them become stronger and ready for their re-introduction into the wild. In this sense, the center is a sort of haven or paradise for them.

Traumatised for having been abandoned, and having been witness to the killing of their mothers, the young elephants have also to regain their trust in human beings. In fact, each of them is given a keeper, who acts as substitute or surrogate mother, and lives with the elephants until they are ready to go back into the wild. The keeper does what mothers do, which means essentially that they bond and become a “family” unit, albeit temporarily. This is even more important in the first delicate years of their lives, when calves are totally milk-dependent and emotionally extremely fragile. Keepers stay with them constantly, even during the night, taking sweet and gentle care of them, keeping them warm (with blankets), feeding them, providing shade so their soft ears don’t get sunburned, taking them for walks into the park where they can play and discover their instinctive "natural" games. Later on, the feeding time is set to every three hours. Keepers should always be in a sufficient numbers to represent a “family” and also to avoid the orphans becoming too attached to one particular person. The aim is always to keep the calf as happy as possible, to avoid depression and distress, which could in turn trigger serious physical problems. It is an incredible, demanding and emotional job.

In the dormitory, every elephant has his or her own private room. The orphans, even though originally coming from different areas of Kenya (and sometimes from outside that country), grow up considering themselves a "family." They also remember and recognise their keepers for life.

Preparing for a Return to the Wild
The environment where orphans are reared respects their natural and innate needs. Freedom and space is provided to wild calves, which helps secure and stimulate their natural instincts. At the same time, a secure space is provided, where they are able to return and hide. They have to be sufficiently prepared and equipped to be returned into their natural environment. The concept and approach is clearly very different to the long-term confinement of wild animals and the negative results that this leads to.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was established in 1977, in memory of David Sheldrick, who was a founder Warden of Kenya's giant Tsavo East National Park, where he served for about 30 years. It is located in Nairobi, Kenya, at the edge of the Nairobi National Park. The Trust plays an important role in the conservation of all wildlife, and especially that of elephants and Black rhinos, which are also rescued and reared (but in smaller numbers) at the center before being released back into the wild. Apart from the Orphanage, the Trust operates through several full-time de-snaring teams in the Tsavo Ecosystem. Consisting of two mobile veterinary units and a community outreach team, they work along with local communities and tribes to reduce human/wildlife conflicts and the resulting devastating impacts.

Rearing and rehabilitating elephant orphans is not an easy task. Without doubt, they are important from a conservation point of view for their impact on the environment, and are also emotionally closer to humans than other wild animals. It took Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who founded the Trust after the death of her husband, 28 years of trial and error to perfect a proper milk formula and a correct and effective hands-on method for intensive husbandry. The result of this allowed, between 1987 and 2009, the successful hand-rearing of approximately 85 newborn and very young elephant orphans at the Nairobi nursery—in addition to others that were saved and were old enough to be directly transferred to the rehabilitation centers in Tsavo East National Park. Dame Daphne has dedicated her whole life to the love of these special creatures.

Threats Continue to Grow
The battle, however, seems to be gigantic, especially because of the international ivory trade, which has been systematically and dramatically reducing the African elephant population. There were once over three million elephants; there are about 200,000 today. This has been worsened by the strong and endless demand for ivory from countries like China and Japan, while a recent report published by Save the Elephants and Care for the Wild showed that the United States of America is the second largest world retail market, after China, for ivory products.

Reports have also showed that, during recent years, elephants are being killed for ivory at the highest rate since the international ban was first introduced in 1989. Once the full protection of elephants was established, there was a drastic fall in the price of ivory. However, things have changed since then. It appears now that regulating trade is more important than preserving animals. So, since China could join Japan as a legal bidder for the last Southern African ivory stockpiles, poaching has been seriously escalating. A global and unconditional ban should be reinstated by CITES as soon as possible.

In addition to this, a severe drought dramatically hit Kenya in 2009. The effects of global warming and deforestation—particularly in the Mau Forest, which is currently at the center of a national debate—are, sadly, very visible in Kenya today. Unexpected deaths among the recently rescued elephant orphans at the center have been worrying the Trust and other experts. It is now believed that a major cause of the losses is a deficiency in vitamins and minerals, due to the drought and the shrinking habitat, during the mother's pregnancy.

The one-hour feeding and playing session in front of a small group of visitors at the centre comes to an end. For the young elephants it is time to leave, and the keepers begin walking away and the small sweet family follows in orderly fashion. I watch them walking away, so close in empathy with their human family, and I think at that moment that in a perfect world, wildlife and environment should not have to pay such high prices for the excesses, and the general lack of respect for life, that humanity continues to carry.

You can support the Trust in various ways; please see the website for additional information. You can also become a foster parent of one of the elephants. I "adopted" Chiamu.
Related Links
Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Media Gallery

Elephants at Sheldrick Trust
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Orphaned Elephants
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Keepers Feeding Young Elephants
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Keeper with Two Young Elephants
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Information Signboard for Chiamu
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mugshotAbout the author:

Donatella Malfitano is an international worker for the United Nations and other organisations on democratic governance and humanitarian affairs. During her travels and missions, mostly in post-war or third-world countries, she also looks at the way animals are affected by armed conflict and other threats.

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