Kenya is without a doubt a wildlife paradise, its wilderness unparalleled and one of the few places on earth where one can admire the Big Five. But with these unique attributes come challenges, as poachers decimate herds for the ivory trade, killing mothers and leaving behind orphans. Several conservation groups are at the forefront of animal rescue and orphan rehabilitation.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi is considered one of the most successful programs in the world. In addition to rescuing and hand-rearing rhino and elephant orphans, it’s engaged in veterinary assistance, anti-poaching measures and habitat conservation. Other initiatives include community outreach, which involves improving the living conditions of the local communities and engaging them in protecting the wildlife and environment.
A short 30-minute drive from Nairobi and next to the Nairobi National Park, the trust’s Nursery Unit — also known as the Elephant Orphanage — attempts to replace the missing mothers of new orphans by providing continuous care.
The dedicated staff are referred to as keepers, as they take care of the elephants on a 24/7 basis, including bottle-feeding younger orphans with a special milk formula. Finding the right formula took the trust years of trial and error as cow milk wasn’t suitable for the animals. Raising elephants is a challenge as they are fully milk-dependent for their first two years, and partially until four.
Keepers wrap the young elephants in colorful wool blankets to keep them warm at night, and even sleep with the animals to bond as an elephant family would — though keepers rotate to ensure the animals don’t get attached to a particular person.
The group of orphans is 18 to 25 strong, with ages ranging from 2 months to 3 years old. The social culture of the elephants is apparent when older orphans welcome newcomers into the fold, calming them by their presence and helping them get accustomed to human presence. Many like to play and splash in the mud to cool themselves when the weather is too hot, play with a ball or munch on nearby tree branches; these are signs the orphans are healthy and in good spirits, and a testament to their keepers’ care.
For one hour a day, from 11am to noon, visitors can witness feeding time and learn from the keepers about each of the elephants’ personalities. During that hour, it’s possible to get close to the young orphans, and even touch them once the feeding is over.
The orphanage’s visiting area is relatively small and tends to be busy during the weekend; it’s best to visit during the week if possible. Regardless, visiting the nursery is a treat and supports the much-needed rescue initiative.
For $50 a year, elephants are open for sponsorship. In addition to the “doing good” feeling, fostering an elephant comes with the added benefit of qualifying the adoptive parents to meet the elephant at its bedtime of 5pm.
The trust’s rehabilitation program ensures the return of the elephants to the wild when they’re old enough, usually at 8 to 10 years old. At that age, they are no longer milk-dependent and can feed on branches and bushes. To date, about 150 infant elephants have been hand-raised and reintegrated into the wild.
In Kenya, the Tsavo East National Park is the only park big enough for large numbers of elephants to reside within. Keepers move to different location units and work toward reintegrating the elephants into the wild; this includes days walking in the bush, further away from camp each time to allow the orphans to get used to their new environment, including the scent of the wild herds into which they’ll eventually integrate at their own pace.
Released elephants come back to the refuge from time to time, to visit or when they need help — it’s said some even bring their own baby elephants to their human family.
One of the first organizations to raise the alert about the massacre of black rhinos, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust created another successful program especially focusing on them. It again developed a suitable milk formula and animal management system for this purpose, helping rear about 10 black rhinos and releasing them back to their natural environment in Tsavo East National Park.
The organization has also funded eight full-time mobile anti-poaching and de-snaring units over 15 years to help prevent ivory and horn poaching, bushmeat snaring and illegal logging within Tsavo National Park. An aerial surveillance unit and mobile veterinary unit provide additional support to these anti-poaching operations.
While the direct appeal of the nursery is to approach the young elephants, the comprehensive rehabilitation work done by the trust is what truly makes this shelter worth a visit.
— Patricia Pagenel