Nairobi - Our arrival at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage (DSWT) just as dusk was falling coincided with that of a group of excited foster parents armed with cameras.
As we discovered later, sunset hour is reserved for private viewing of the fostered babies and the foster parents were not going to miss a moment of that special time.
If you are interested in knowing more about this unique sanctuary, read Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s autobiography, An African Love Story. It recounts her amazing life in Kenya, her years at Tsavo East National Park with the love of her life, the renowned naturalist and founder warden of the park, David Sheldrick MBE and how the elephant orphanage, named in his honour, came to be in the forest fringes bordering Nairobi National Park.
Sheldrick still lives in the home she built after David’s untimely death in 1977. It overlooks the mud bath where her orphans play and entertain visitors from around the globe each day.
Today, Daphne’s daughter, Angela, and her husband Rob Carr-Hartley run the DSWT. It is so much more than the world’s foremost elephant and rhino orphanage, it also supports field veterinary units, de-snaring operations, community outreach projects, strategic borehole drilling and dam enlargements, anti-poaching units and more.
Sheldrick has been honoured across the globe for her contribution to Kenya’s wildlife and to the wildlife of the world. She is a charismatic woman who is outspoken about poaching.
Keepers and baby elephants wander freely around the orphanage, along with Maxwell, the blind black rhino who was found in Nairobi National Park going around in circles and adopted by the DSWT orphanage. We watched as he tore around his enclosure relishing the mud after the rain and snorting in sheer delight. Even a little gazelle trotted out of the bushes as we watched.
Public viewing takes place between 11am and noon daily, and visitors can learn about the rescues, meet the babies and watch them interact with one another and their keepers, play soccer and take mud baths.
Afterwards it was time to shop, to chat with the staff and – most exciting of all – choose your own elephant or rhino to foster. For a mere $50 (about R434) per year you become part of the future of one little orphan, with monthly updates.
Each orphan spends 24 hours a day with their keepers, who alternate so the elephants do not become too attached to one individual and suffer separation anxiety when the keeper goes on leave. They even sleep together in their individual sleeping quarters, a mattress for the baby and a bed for the keeper.
The keepers become substitute mothers for the baby elephants, feeding them formula every three hours, showing them how to play and sand bath and touching and nurturing them, as their requirements almost mirror those of a human baby.
And the immense role the other orphans play cannot be minimised, for they are a family-orientated species and each baby needs a family structure to thrive.
It is through the rumble and hugs of the other orphans that a new wild baby can feel less traumatised. They will shepherd him around and love him, communicate with him and ease his fears. Just by watching them, he can learn how to take a bottle and how to play.
But the success of this elephant orphanage did not happen overnight. Sheldrick has been taking in abandoned and injured wildlife since her marriage to David Sheldrick in 1960, and she recalls that her favourite “soul animal” must have been Bunty, the impala, who bestowed the greatest honour on her human mother by choosing Daphne as her birthing companion when giving birth to all six of her babies.
But success with orphaned elephants did not come as easily. They are milk dependent for the first three years of their life and it took Daphne 28 years to perfect a formula, as elephants are intolerant of cow’s milk. Most important is the treatment necessary to take a traumatised, heartbroken little orphan and then re-integrate it back into the wild.
When they reach the age of around three, the elephants are moved from the orphanage to one of two rehabilitation stockades in Tsavo East National Park for relocation into the wild.
They may well remain keeper dependent for several more years. It is here that other DSWT elephants will “telepathically learn” of their arrival and arrive in great excitement to greet the newcomers.
The matriarchs jostle with each other to take them under their wing. The orphans will eventually join up with wild herds, but it is almost certain some will return either when injured, to show off their offspring, for a feed in dry months or to say hello to their human family.
All the babies are ultimately released to Tsavo where they mix with the wild elephants and live freely and ultimately produce their own calves.
The story behind each orphan is heartrending. One little elephant was found next to her dead mother who, along with two of her daughters, had been poached for her beautiful ivory tusks, her face hacked away as her baby watched.
Another was swept a kilometre downstream after trying to follow his mother across a swollen river and was found sitting in a boma with a herd of Maasai cattle.
A third fell in a well and was rescued. Another little fellow was found guarding his dying mother while another survived – with only a bullet hole to his leg – the hail of gunfire which killed his mother.
If you are unable to spend that hour of sunset in Nairobi at the elephant orphanage then go online and foster your own elephant for Christmas, or give one to a friend.
You will receive monthly details about your baby’s progress and field reports once it integrates back into the wild. You will save more than a life, you will assure their future.
We “bought” three for Christmas.