Safari, Part 2: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Haven

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David Sheldrick was a pioneer game warden who had done much to combat poaching. He is pictured with orphans Eleanor and Rufus. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

SafariPart 1 (click here)

Rapa, one of the orphaned baby elephants at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) is a very cheeky boy. When he’s not butting in on the games of his peers, he’s getting his well-behaved companions into trouble or devising ways to snag extra milk bottles at feeding time. The keepers’ diaries are littered with “Rapa was naughty today” and “Rapa was told off by the older girls.” It is no wonder that he, along with a few other young mischief-makers at the elephant orphanage, were prudently kept away from a recent group of distinguished visitors, including Kenya’s and Japan’s First Ladies, Margaret Kenyatta and Akie Abe, respectively. So, naturally, my husband and I had to foster Rapa and two more elephants besides. And then, visiting the Kenya-based orphanage, with our friend, Kelly Vitko, a fellow foster parent, became a must. It was the impetus for our entire trip to Africa.

Baby Rapa shortly after he arrived at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The young calf had fallen into a well. The colorful blankets used at the Trust provide warmth and soothing comfort. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Currently, there are 31 baby elephants being cared for at the Trust’s nursery tucked into a corner of Kenya’s Nairobi National Park.  As part of the DSWT’s Orphans Project, they are hand-reared there for the first two to three years of their lives, during which time they are completely milk-dependent. Without intervention, they would die in the wild. When they are strong enough, they are brought to one of three relocation units in the much larger Tsavo East and Chyulu Hills National Parks where they are gradually re-introduced into the wild.

Frolicking with the orphaned baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Their individual personalities — from naughty to shy to playful — are readily apparent.
Kelly Vitko cradling the trunk of one of the little ones …
… while my husband, Kevin von Neuschatz looks on.

Established in 1977 by Dr. Daphne Sheldrick DBE in memory of her late husband, David Sheldrick MBE, a pioneer game warden, the DSWT is the world’s most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. To date, the Trust has raised 190 elephants who in turn have delivered 22 wild-born babies. One of the females, Lisa, is now 30 years old. “She came with a broken leg which has healed in such a way that she isn’t that debilitated anymore,” reveals Sheldrick’s younger daughter, Angela, who runs the trust. “She’s had five wild-born babies which she shared with us. And her first wild-born baby came back with her calf as well. So, we are great-grandparents and that’s when you can really measure the success of this project.”

Daphne Sheldrick with Angela in the 1960s. Daphne established The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in memory of her husband, a famous naturalist and founding warden of Tsavo East National Park. She was 43 when David died from a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 57. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Among Daphne Sheldrick’s numerous honors are an Honorary Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery by Glasgow University and the appointment by Queen Elizabeth II to Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the first Knighthood to be awarded in Kenya since the country received Independence in 1963. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Daphne Sheldrick with Aisha. It took years of trial and error for Daphne to find the right baby formula as elephants cannot tolerate the fat in cow’s milk. It was when she was caring for Aisha (“the smallest elephant [she] had ever seen”) that Daphne hit upon the right ingredients. (The secret is coconut oil.) Triumph soon turned to sorrow however, when Daphne had to go to Nairobi to help with her elder daughter, Jill’s, wedding. Upon her return a week later, she found the little calf in a deep depression – skeletal and ill. Aisha died that very night, with her head cradled in Daphne’s lap. The lesson born of this tragedy was that the orphans must not get too close to one person. From then on, the calves would be cared for by a rotating team of keepers. The story is the subject of a moving documentary called My Wild Affair – The Elephant Who Found a Mom. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Dame Daphne Sheldrick, fourth generation Kenya-born with her daughter, Angela Sheldrick, Executive Director of the DSWT. “My mother and father [David Sheldrick] raised their first elephants when my mother was 28 years old. She’s now 82,” reveals Angela. “You literally need a lifetime to measure elephants because their lifespan mirrors our own.”

Dame Daphne Sheldrick signing our copies of her memoir, Love, Life and Elephants.

All of the baby elephants at the DSWT have been orphaned or abandoned as a result of human activity. Mostly, their mothers have been killed by poachers or the calves have fallen down wells or manholes or become victims of indiscriminate snares. Their rescues are invariably dramatic and the babies are left traumatized by the loss of their families. The infants enter a period of deep grieving for their lost loved ones which can last for months. Survival hangs in the balance during this time as not all calves retain the will to live. “Raising an elephant is a difficult undertaking,” explains Angela. “They are very fragile, needing care 24/7 and things can go wrong very rapidly. Probably more important than the milk is the husbandry – replacing that lost elephant family – because elephants are all about family and nurturing and one’s got to instill that will to live once again in these orphaned baby elephants.”

The keepers sleep with the orphans at night. A wild elephant herd is a complex and highly sensitive organism. The young are raised by an extended matriarchal society that includes the birth mother along with sisters, cousins, aunts, grandmothers and friends. The bonds endure for life which can be as long as 70 years. When one of the members is killed, it disrupts the entire group. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Sometimes, the elephants take matters into their own hands (er, trunks)! The orphans are never given any junk food or fruit like apples and bananas and they are never fed leaves and shrubs by hand.
In the nursery, they only get milk and the vegetation they eat naturally. This is to prevent them going into town looking for human food, a recipe for human/wildlife conflict.
Full bottles at the ready.
The keepers protect their fragile charges from the sun …
… and the rain.
Each elephant gets its own stockade. They have to be separated or else they keep each other awake at night, like children.
Each elephant’s name, date of birth and where they were found is listed on the outside of their bunk.
Edwin Lusichi, the head keeper. Edwin has been working at the nursery for 18 years. The trust currently employs 58 keepers, all recruited from a mix of Kenyan tribes.



Like human children, baby elephants need toys and stimulation. All sorts of distractions are built in the infants’ daily routine including walks in varied surroundings and play time with all kinds of toys, manmade and natural. It is cause for celebration when a baby elephant plays for the first time for the lifted spirit signals a reasonable chance of survival.


Baby elephants on a walk watched over by their keepers. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Baby elephants playing in the mud. Mud baths are not only a source of fun, but they serve the critical function of cooling elephants down while protecting their skin from the harsh sun.

To that end, the orphans have a minder that provides around-the-clock care. Each elephant sleeps in its own stockade alongside one of 58 trained carers who tend to them on a rotational basis so as to prevent the formation of too strong an attachment to a single individual. The resident elephants help with rehabilitation too as the females are instinctively maternal, even the young ones. Eventually, with humans acting as stand-ins for their mothers and with the aid of their peers, the majority of the surviving orphans recover to become fully functional wild elephants again.

Elephants at Ithumba re-integration unit in Tsavo East National Park. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Older Ithumba orphans return to the stockades with some wild elephants. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
A group of elephants enjoy each other’s company at the Ithumba Reintegration Center in Tsavo East National Park. Measuring some 8,000 square miles, Tsavo is Kenya’s biggest national park and home to Kenya’s largest elephant population, which stands at approximately 11,000. Due to its vastness and nutritious vegetation, Tsavo offers an ideal environment for elephants. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Elephants at Umani Springs in the Kibwezi Forest. Angela Sheldrick: “This relocation center’s genteel environment with springs and ample shade and food is where the orphans with disabilities are taken for re-integration into the wild. One of the elephants in our care still has a bullet wedged in her knee, another one has a broken hip, another suffers from a broken leg and another one has a snare that just about severed his foot. He’s healed beautifully but these are elephants that would struggle to walk 90km in the dry season in search of food. So, this wonderful environment is perfect for them. It’s filled with wild elephants. They have all the same exposures, not the same hardships.”

Each calf remains at the nursery until they are ready to make the journey to one of three relocation units: Voi and Ithumba in Tsavo East National Park and for the more fragile among them, the idyllic Umani Springs in the Kibwezi Forest located in Chyulu Hills National Park. The three relocation units currently house 65 partially independent and dependent orphans. Once there, the elephants, who are lodged in open stockades, fraternize with the wild herds. Older ex-orphans are also on hand to teach them the etiquette of wild ways.

The elephants’ re-integration back into the wild is nothing rapid according to Angela. “They’re like your own children,” she says. “It’s a gradual fly-of-the-nest and it takes years. Once they’re at the relocation units, these elephants can be with us another eight years before they actually become fully independent.” The speed of re-integration largely depends on the personality of the elephant and the age at which it became orphaned. Those that are rescued at say, two years of age, tend to remember their families and are more eager to join their wild friends. Those rescued in infancy tend to stick around a little longer, but in time, they too leave the nest. The DSWT has never had an elephant that hasn’t gone wild eventually. “What’s totally unique about our project is these animals all live a wild life again and when you raise elephants, the greatest gift you can ever give them is a wild life,” says Angela.

An orphaned black rhino baby at the DSWT. To date, the Trust has hand-reared 15 black rhinos. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Maxwell, a black rhino at the DSWT. Because Maxwell is congenitally blind, he will live out his life in peace and comfort at the orphanage. Solio, a rhino who was reared at the orphanage and now lives in Nairobi National Park, comes to visit him at night.
The ostrich Pea, happily lives among the elephants …
… as does Kiko, the giraffe.

Elephants aren’t the only animals being reared at the Trust. Currently, there’s a resident giraffe, an ostrich and a rhino too. Impressively, 15 black rhinos have been hand-reared at DSWT to date. But the Trust’s initiatives aren’t solely about raising the animals in its care. Its approach to wildlife conservation is a comprehensive one. So, to combat elephant and rhino poaching and to prevent bush-meat snaring, it operates ten Anti-Poaching Units working together with the Kenya Wildlife Service. These units come complete with aerial surveillance and a Canine Unit with specially-trained tracker dogs.

A DSWT and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) anti-poaching patrol tracking down illegal snares in Tsavo National Park. “Most Westerners don’t appreciate how crude poaching is,” reveals Angela who goes on to explain that poaching is commonly carried out with poisoned arrows, spears and snares, all methods that cause excruciating pain. Snares are especially troublesome as they don’t discriminate. “A snare for a buffalo can trap a baby elephant.” A recent and ambitious project to count all of Africa’s savannah elephants (The Great Elephant Census) reveals that alarmingly, elephant numbers are much lower than originally thought. By 1979, only 1.3 million elephants remained in Africa down from an estimated high of 20 million prior to European colonization. Today, there a mere 352,000 elephants exist on the continent, a figure which will be halved by 2025, according to the study. At this rate, extinction is almost certain. The prognosis for wild African rhinos is even more bleak. In light of the rampant poaching (at least 1,300 rhinos were killed illegally in Africa in 2015), experts predict that the species may be extinct by 2026. Photo: Gary Roberts Photography
A poacher’s crude trap that was confiscated by anti-poaching teams. Photo: Joachim Schmeisser and The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Spears confiscated by anti-poaching teams. Photo: Joachim Schmeisser and The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
The DSWT/KWS Mara Mobile Vet team come to the aid of an elephant. Photo: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

In addition, the Trust also funds four Mobile Veterinary Units across Kenya. These units, with their timely treatments, have saved the lives of some 2,000 elephants thus far. Moreover, the DSWT works to secure wild habitats through public-private partnerships because as Angela points out, “without the real estate, it’s all lost.” Additional conservation measures include providing financial and material support to various organizations in Kenya such as the Mount Kenya Trust, the Galana Conservancy and the Mwalunganje Elephant Sanctuary, home to 300 elephants.  There are also various community outreach programs which strive to improve living conditions and educational standards in local communities. “So, our tentacles spread far and wide and obviously, we cut our cloth according to funds available,” says Angela. “Of course, there’s much, much more to be done, but it’s very satisfying to know one makes a difference each day and that, we certainly do.” Indeed. And this holiday season, our friends and family will become the proud foster parents of several more baby elephants – both naughty and nice!

Distinguished visitors to the DSWT include Keira Knightly, Victoria Beckham and Kristin Davis, a patron of the charity.

How You Can Help

The DSWT receives most of its funding from its fostering program, initiated by Angela. For a minimum of $50, you can adopt one of the elephants (or rhinos) presently in the Trust’s care for a year. As a foster parent, you will receive, among other things, a fostering certificate with a profile and photograph of your adopted orphan along with a monthly summary listing highlights of the previous month together with a direct link to the Keepers’ Diary for your elephant.  Looking for a unique gift this Christmas (or in general)? Look no further. Fostering is a present that can be enjoyed throughout the year.

Additional giving opportunities include The Enormous Elephant Run, a 10K walk/run in Central Park coming up on November 19. Proceeds go directly to the U.S. Friends of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a 501(c)(3) charitable entity, where you can also make a direct tax deductible donation.

The Enormous Elephant 10K Walk/Run – November 19, 2016 in Central Park. It’s not too late to register!

Then on November 29th, aka Giving Tuesday, donations to the U.S. Friends of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust will be matched 100% by participating philanthropic organizations. And last but not least, J.Crew has partnered with the DSWT in launching an elephant-inspired line of clothing as part of the retailer’s Garments for Good collection. Fifty percent of the proceeds are donated to the DSWT.

J.Crew’s line of elephant-inspired clothing launched in partnership with DSWT.

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