Lonely Planet Writer

Wildlife trust in Kenya celebrates 40 years of elephant rescue

This wildlife trust in Kenya has rescued more than 200 orphaned infant elephants over a 40-year period and helped release them back into their natural habitat. Special ‘baby’ formula, a surrogate human family, and even sleeping with them are all needed to help get the new-borns through their first few months.

Keeper with a playful young elephant
Keeper with one of his charges at Nairobi National Park. Image courtesy of Freya Dowson, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Keepers have to work on rotation to make sure the elephants do not get so attached to one specific individual that they would pine for them when they’re not there. The incredible process has been developed by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is based in Nairobi National Park in Kenya.

Angela Sheldrick, the trust chief executive, explained: “Rescued orphaned infant elephants arrive … traumatised by the events that have caused the separation from their mother and family, by more often than not extreme circumstances such as incidents of poaching or human-wildlife contact. Aside from the trauma and shock from such events the infant inevitably enters a period of deep grieving for its lost loved ones, which can last for months.”

Elephants and their keepers
Bath time at Nairobi National Park. Image courtesy of Freya Dowson, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

During this period, their very survival is in the balance and the animals need intensive nurturing to guide them through. Angela said: “To a baby elephant, who is emotionally very fragile, it is the family aspect that is all important. The Trust’s Keepers handle their ‘adopted’ infant with gentle patience, exuding love and feeding the baby on demand, little and often, which is vital to [their] survival. Elephants are tactile and highly social animals, so the human ‘family’ is always encouraged to be in physical contact with the babies as much as possible.”

Gradually, the calves settle into a more regular feeding routine but they must still be watched all the time and protected with blankets, rainwear, sunscreen, and umbrellas depending on the weather conditions. They also need toys and stimulation – no different to human babies – and because of their extremely high intelligence, they need distraction built into their daily routine.

Elephants exercise with their keepers
Exercise time for the elephants and their keepers. Image courtesy of Freya Dowson, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Angela said: “The keepers take the orphans on walks in varied surroundings with unlimited access to nature’s toys such as sticks and stones, plus artificial playthings like rubber tubes and balls. Cause for celebration is when a baby elephant plays for the first time, because only then can one be sure of a reasonable chance of success as an elephant will only thrive if they are happy.”

The calves also at times will need gentle discipline for their behaviour, and just as importantly, need to be given forgiveness for it later. By the third and fourth year, the young elephants start to wean off milk for vegetation and instinctively they know what to eat. In forty years, the trust has successfully rehabilitated 230 orphan elephants back into the wild. And even better, those animals have in turn produced 28 babies or “ex-orphans”.

“Nothing quite like the birth of new wild calves fully captures the success of the Orphans Project,” said Angela.