I adore Kenya. It is a really magnificent country and nudging the outskirts of the metropolis is Nairobi National Park where you will find in the forest fringes The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, home to rescued elephants.
Our landing was aborted at the last minute as a “strong”cross wind had sprung up, the result of a flash storm sweeping across Nairobi and reducing visibility to zero. When we eventually clambered into the Land Rover our driver cheerfully assured us that even though the notorious Langata Road was virtually a river and traffic reduced to a standstill he knew ways and we should make The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage by dusk. I hoped so, Daphne Sheldrick was expecting us and our grand children were meeting their foster elephants for the first time.
We turned onto the gravel road and parked at the orphanage just as a few excited foster parents were driving in, cameras ready, for the sunset hour is reserved for private viewing by foster parents only, and your visit has to be pre-booked. One lady told us she visits every evening when she is in Nairobi. Spend a few minutes here and it is very easy to see why this is considered a happy place for so many.
Keepers and little elephants were just coming back from their bush time, the babies running ahead in excitement as it was time for an evening bottle and elephants adore their milk feed. Maxwell, the blind black rhino who was found in Nairobi National Park wandering helplessly around in circles all on his own, and adopted by the DSWT orphanage was tearing happily around his enclosure relishing the mud after the rain and snorting in sheer delight. Not only has DSWT rescued elephants and rhino they have also over time brought to safety a baby giraffe, Kiko and Pea and Pod, a pair of baby ostriches as well as numerous antelope and even a hippo.
But first it was time spent with a living legend. The Matriarch, Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick still lives in the home she and and her husband, David built in 1976, a year before his untimely death. It overlooks the mud bath where her orphans play and entertain visitors from around the globe each morning. Daphne’s daughter, Angela Sheldrick and her husband Robert Carr-Hartley, today run the DSWT. It is so much more than the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation haven in the world. DSWT also supports field veterinary units, works in collaboration with KWS, is behind the removal of snares, is involved in community outreach projects and strategic borehole drilling, dam enlargements, anti-poaching units and a host more. Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick has been honoured across the globe for her incredible contribution to the wildlife of Kenya, in fact to the wildlife of the world. She is a charismatic, elegant and outspoken about the atrocities of poaching and the greed and corruption of mankind, passionate about restoring respect to all things living and unrelenting in her belief that all ivory should be globally banned. She is an example to all. Iconic comes to mind, she certainly is a forerunner in conservation.
Her autobiography, which I rate as an all time favorite, the beautifully penned Love Life and Elephants, An African Love Story, is about 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. It has been translated into many languages, Chinese included, and that may, in some way, educate those that don’t first consider that an elephant has to lose its life, it’s family destroyed and a baby elephant orphaned all for a dangling ivory trinket.
Each orphan spends 24 hours a day with the keepers, who alternate among them so the elephants do not become too attached to one individual and then have to 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. If the elephants shared sleeping arrangements it would resemble a dormitory of raucous children and no-one would get a good night’s rest. It is these 23 men who become substitute mothers for the baby elephants, feeding them their formula 3 hourly, showing them how to play and sand bath and touching and nurturing them as their requirements almost mirror those of a human baby. They smother their tender ears in lotion to prevent sunburn and wrap them in snug blankets to keep them warm. And the immense role that the other orphans play cannot be minimized, for they are a family unit and each little elephant desperately needs the family structure. It is through the rumble and hugs of the other orphans that a new wild baby can feel less bewildered. They will shepherd him around and love him and communicate and ease his fears and just by watching them he can learn how to take his bottle, where to go and how to play. They become his family.
But the success of this elephant orphanage did not happen overnight. Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick has been taking in abandoned and injured wildlife since her marriage to David Sheldrick in 1955, and she recalls that her favorite “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. However success with orphaned elephants did not come as easily. Like rhino they are milk dependent for the first three years of their life and it took Daphne 28 years to perfect a formula that was compatible and life saving, as elephants are intolerant of cow’s milk. She too has spent a lifetime mastering the husbandry required to take a traumatized, heartbroken little orphan and successfully one day re-integrate it back into the wild.
When they reach the age of three, or thereabouts the elephants are moved from the orphanage to one of the 3 re-integration units run by DSWT. Voi and Ithumba in Tsavo and Umani Springs in Kibwezi Forest. They may well remain keeper dependent for several more years and it is here that other DSWT elephants will “telepathically learn” of their arrival and gather in great excitement to greet the newcomers. The matriarchs will jostle to take them under their wing and eventually the orphans will join up with wild herds or previous orphan herds. But it is almost certain some will return, either when injured, or to show off their offspring, or just for a feed in dry months or to say hello to their human family before slipping back either into the 13500sq kilometers that make up Tsavo East or the 16000 acre Kibwezi Forest which borders Chyulu Hills National Park. The objective of DSWT is to ultimately release all the elephants in the nursery into the wild.
Should foster donors be so inclined they can make a booking to stay at Ithumba Safari Camp or Ithumba Hill Camp or alternately book Umani Springs self catering house, all are DSWT properties.
The story behind each orphan is heart rending. 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 kilometer 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 protecting his dying mother and another survived, ,with only a bullet hole to his leg, a hail of gunfire which killed his mother.
This is a heart place. It will gladden your soul as very little else can. It is living proof that one woman’s dream can make a huge and beautiful impact. Public viewing takes place between 11 and 12 daily. Visitors can learn about the rescues, meet the babies and watch them interact with each other and their keepers, watch them play soccer, take mud baths and even socialize. Afterwards it is time to shop, to chat with the staff and most exciting of all chose your own elephant or rhino to foster! For a mere $50 per year you become part of the future of one little orphan, with monthly updates, pictures, field reports, uand a copy of an Angela Sheldrick water colour. If you are unable to spend that magical hour in Nairobi then go on line (DSWT) and foster your own elephant, or give one to a friend, or tuck a baby elephant into your child’s Christmas stocking or give one as a birthday gift. You will save more than a life, you will go some way to assuring the future of elephants. And you will feel oh so good doing it. We have.