In early December I decided to go to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Elephant Orphanage. This is within Nairobi National Park and is where infant elephants are taken and raised if they have been orphaned. Elephant communities themselves do not stay in Nairobi National Park because the park is too small. Elephants require lots of space. Walking 100 miles a day is an average stroll for a herd of elephants. According to the Trust, 30 years ago the number of elephants in Africa was 3 million. Now, the number is less than 400,000 and is declining steadily. This is because the space elephants require is no longer available due to the huge population explosion which resulted in elephants competing with humans for space. Of course, being kept within the limits of a national park is not the best option, leaving elephants are dependent on unreliable rainfalls; however it remains the best alternative when the elephants are viewed as threats when they step outside the park. If not seen as threatening, they are seen as valuable – not only for their ivory, but also for leather, curios, and meat. There is much more information about this available at the Trust’s website: http://sheldrickwildlifetrust.org. It also shares unfortunate details about elephants being poached and trafficked, particularly the infants. It is incredibly sad. The International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also has some interesting information available.
It was at the Elephant Orphanage that I learned elephant orphaned younger than 3 years cannot survive without milk. Usually the mother elephant’s milk supplements elephant infants’ vegetarian diets for the first 5 years of its life. While elephants are known for being human-like and emotional, resulting in their strong nature to care for and protect each other, mothers are also aware that they cannot supply milk for an orphan infant without sacrificing the survival of her own.
The Trust developed a milk formula similar to the natural milk of elephant mothers, and has the elephant infants spend a large portion of their day in Nairobi National Park, encouraging them to thrive in their natural wild habitat. This might seem contradictory considering that the elephant infants sleep in the same stall as their individual Keepers; however this is necessary for the elephant survive as elephants only thrive if they are happy. They are inherently emotional and need to know that they are valued and in community. They develop a bond, each with their own Keepers, and are reliant on their Keepers until their rehabilitation is complete. The orphans grow up with each other as family until they are eventually re-integrated with their herd in the wild. Their herds are usually traced once the elephant infants are discovered so that they will be able to release the elephants to the same herd. The goal of the Trust is to rear the orphaned elephants in such a way that they grow up psychologically sound. Most of those released to the wild return to their herds in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park after spending time at a short rehabilitation camp re-introducing them to the park. They are monitored to ensure that they are accepted and welcomed into the herd. Apparently it is true, elephants never forget. They remember and recognize their trainer throughout their lifetime.
Elephant orphans, as humans, each have their own stories however many have similar stories with their mothers having been poached resulting in an elephant infant without milk or nutrients, falling behind in the herd and eventually on its own. At the Elephant Orphanage there were elephants who were discovered by their mother’s body, wandering a settlement on their own, or being washed up on shore.
The elephant orphans grow up with each other as family.
I saw 3 sets of elephant orphans. The first were the youngest and newest to the shelter. They came wearing blankets for it had been so chilly that morning. If it had been a warm day, apparently I could have seen them having a mud bath. They only drank their milk and walked around. When I think elephants I think large round creatures. The youngest one was still very traumatized. He was found washed up on a shore and had just arrived at the shelter recently. He would not drink the milk and barely moved. I’ve never seen an animal more sad, or an elephant thinner. It broke my heart. Unfortunately, I was not surprised when writing this, to discover when looking up the website that he was one of the few who did not survive the Trusts’ intervention. Found washed up along river shores, he was not only traumatized but also weak and predisposed to sicknesses, such as pneumonia, which took him in the end.
The second set we saw were older and came running for the milk. They supplemented their milk diet with branches and although they were only by a little older than the first set, they were significantly bigger and had much more energy. Certain elephants of the second set continually checked in on the first set, seeming to take care of each other, although most often the elephants kept near their Keeper.
When both these sets left, in came the 2-3 year olds. They were huge and gregarious! Full of energy they played with both their trainers, each other, and the crowd. They were full of life and of all the space they had they stuck together side to side huddled like they were discussing a football play. A nice testimony of how the Trust has helped elephant infants thrive, this third set left everyone hopeful that the lives of the first set will one day turn around.
The Trust also looks after orphaned rhinos, which up close look both scary and gentle at the same time. Their skin is so incredibly thick, dry and rough. I can’t help but wonder how it keeps from cracking. Since rhinos don’t use cream, there must be a purpose. One thing I’m sure, nothing can penetrate that skin so I’m guessing rhinos don’t suffer from sun damage.
I was torn. There animals are cute but part of me feels that we shouldn’t be seeing them as an attraction – at least not the youngest ones when they are clearly still traumatized. However on the other side, between 1987 and 2009 the Trust has successfully hand-reared over 85 newborn and very young elephant orphans (in addition to those older and fit enough to go directly to the Tsavo rehabilitation camps) that they have proven to be effective if they have the continued funding, and how better to receive donors? They have a program where you can sponsor an elephant much like a child. This seemed like a great and innovative way to raise funds for the Trust, and as much as I knew mom always wanted an elephant as a little girl, I couldn’t bring myself to support this when there are so many hungry, abused and orphaned people in this world. I knew she would agree, but I am still glad to learn that there is someone looking out for these beautiful creatures.
My heart did go out to them, especially as it is my own species which has created so much damage and trouble for these animals in the first place. However there are many humans which suffer as a result of our own actions as well. There is one thing I cannot change, no matter how cruel mankind may be to these lovely animals, there is equal and undeserved cruelness towards fellow human beings. It is justice against this where my effort and support must always lie first and foremost.
To me, humanity comes first.