Safari: Part 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.