Baby elephant orphans are hand-reared at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Just hearing the words “baby animals” makes my heart toasty. So, it wasn’t surprising to me that the No. 1 activity on TripAdvisor for Nairobi, Kenya, is an orphanage for baby elephants founded by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT).
Susan Bates, a travel agent for Travel Service in St. Simons Island, Ga., told me that visiting the DSWT’s Orphans’ Project is a must-do activity for many Kenya-bound clients.
“When they double check their final itineraries, they make sure that the orphanage was not somehow left out,” Bates said.
That’s a good testament to the popularity of the orphanage — especially when considering that a Kenya itinerary is essentially a safari itinerary, filled with many up-close sightings of wild elephants. Thus, if you didn’t know any better, you might think that the excursion is gratuitous. It’s not. The orphanage tells another, arguably more significant, part of the story concerning Kenya’s wildlife.
The elephants at the orphanage come from all over the country and have been somehow separated from their mothers. For some, the separation is a result of human interference and conflict. Certain mothers may have died from natural reasons such as starvation and old age.
But the most heartbreaking stories have to do with innocent mothers left to die at the hands of poachers, who kill the animals for their ivory tusks. Tusks are still a symbol of wealth in many cultures, and the trade is only increasing.
“This all happens when they are at an age where they cannot survive without their mother’s milk and protection against other dangers,” said Edwin Lusichi, project manager at the Nairobi Orphan Nursery. “When we rescue them, we hand-rear them for three years.”
After three years, the elephants are reintroduced into the wild at the Tsavo East National Park. Since it takes about five to 10 years for the elephants to adapt to the conditions in the wild, the center tracks their progress.
Helping wild species survive is the lifelong work of Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the wife of David Sheldrick, the naturalist and founding warden of Tsavo East National Park. Though Daphne is Kenya-born and has made significant contributions of the rescue and rehabilitation of animals all her life, she founded the trust in 1977 after the passing of her husband. To date, the Orphans’ Project has hand-reared more than 150 orphaned elephants.
Daphne spent 28 years developing a formula that mimicked the mother’s milk of milk-dependent elephants and rhinos. She slept very little and spent most of her time at the side of her elephants as she learned the proper methods for preparing the orphans for survival in the wild.
Today, her methods are on display at the orphanage, where the elephants are part of a new family. The remarkable keepers — many of whom have been working at the orphanage for nearly 20 years — act as motherly as possible: feeding the elephants, bathing them in coconut oil, escorting them to the national park and even sleeping at their sides.
The time for the general public to visit is 11 a.m., while "foster parents" are allowed to visit at 5 p.m., when the elephants return from their afternoons in the park and get ready for bed. There is a lot of excitement among all guests, young and old alike, as the elephants run toward their individual bottles of formula.
After the feeding, the elephants return to their individual rooms, and guests are invited to visit the animals as well as choose one to foster, which costs about $50 a year and includes regular updates about the foster elephant.
The older elephants live in rooms with picket-wood fences with generous space in between the slabs. The younger ones are in more enclosed spaces as keepers — some of whom stay close to a single elephant for an entire day at a time — need to be with them constantly. The orphans require three hourly milk feeds, but they won’t survive without love and kindness.
In addition to the elephants is the center’s oldest animal, Maxwell the black rhinoceros. The 9year-old rhinoceros is blind and was rejected by his mother. Performing surgery on his eyes did not cure Maxwell’s blindness, which an expert later revealed was a genetic condition.
“Rhinos are territorial animals, so he can’t go back into the wild,” said Lusichi. “We have to stay with him all his life, which will be approximately 35 to 40 years.”
Each year, the orphanage enlarges Maxwell’s space, giving him more room to roam and time to learn his boundaries.
During my visit, the center’s lone baby giraffe, Kili, caught my attention. He just seemed so lonely and vulnerable, sitting motionless in his stable. A month after my visit, while fact checking for this article, I found out that he died on Dec. 10 due to a host of reasons, one being that he was shocked after an attack by a lioness and couldn’t eat. About half of the elephants that come to the orphanage don’t survive, Sheldrick told CBS News.
A visit to the DSWT orphanage is the ultimate Africa keepsake. It tugs and tugs at the heartstrings long after you return home, but mainly in a good way.
Each animal has its own agenda and personality, something that isn’t so obvious when spotting elephants in passing while on safari. One elephant loved hurling his body against the fence as he chomped non-stop on tree branches and grasses. Others liked to stick out only their trunks, much to the delight of children (and their parents).
One return visitor, easily in his 40s, reminisced about the time when his entire hand was playfully engulfed by one elephant’s trunk. According to Lusichi, elephants who rub their bodies against the fence are free game for petting.
Murit, a 6-month-old elephant draped in red-and-blue cloth like a mini-Masai warrior, offered me my all-time favorite greeting in Kenya. He opened his mouth to reveal a fairly toothless grin as his trunk flexed up, revealing its underside, and making a mess of the blankets overhead. Then, with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, he heaved his trunk forward, landing on my arm. I had done a pretty good job keeping it together, but this made me squeal.
Without the help of the orphanage, Murit would have been dead. But there he was, full of life and energizing everyone who came to visit.