The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is an amazing organization in Kenya that is committed to wildlife conservation, particularly helping black rhinos and elephants. They have an extraordinary program for raising orphaned elephants and rhinos and then slowly reintroducing them back into the wild. The orphanage itself is in Nairobi, on the edge of the Nairobi National Park. They also have two camps set up in Tsavo National Park, and veterinary units as well. The process of raising these animals is time consuming and challenging. The “keepers” spend all of their time with their charges, becoming surrogate human parents for them. The keepers sleep and eat in the elephants stalls. They spend the day with them out in the park, and feed them their milk formula with huge baby bottles. They even get up every three hours during the night to give them their bottles. They also travel to the various sites around Kenya to rescue them and get them back to Nairobi. It takes ten years of this care before the elephants are ready to be moved to Tsavo to interact with wild elephants. And it costs 650.00 dollars a day to care for each elephant. What this organization has accomplished it truly remarkable.
I had first heard of the orphanage on 60 minutes. I was struck by the devotion and gentleness of the keepers, and the commitment of Dame Daphne Sheldrick. Who has been running the orphanage for 30 years. She spoke beautifully of our responsibility to these wild animals that we humans have pushed from their natural habitat. At one point she was moved to tears recounted the most recent baby elephant to die upon reaching the orphanage, despite the best efforts of the vets there to keep it alive. I was planning a trip to my favorite spot in Kenya, Campi ya Kanzi (an environmentally friendly safari camp run cooperatively with the Maasai)- so I wanted to stop over an visit the Sheldrick orphanage as well. Little did I know that my good friend Ame and I would have the incredible experience of getting to help an orphaned baby elephant ourselves!
Campi ya Kanzi is located on the Kuku Group Ranch , which is kind of like an American Indian reservation, set up by the Kenyan government for the Maasai people. The wonderful thing about it is that it is a fully environmentally responsible camp, committed to preserving the land, the wild animals and the Maasai people and culture. When you stay at the beautiful tented camp, your guides are Maasai warriors, who are now fighting to save the land they love so much. One day we were out on a game drive when Samson, our maasai guide, got word that a baby elephant had been seen near a village without it’s mother. The baby had run away from the people there, so Samson sent out word to the other guides to keep an eye out for it. It was quite hot, and sadly Kenya is experiencing a serious drought this year, so everyone was concerned about this little elephant. To compound matters, elephant poaching has been on the rise, due to the government’evidences decision to sell ivory again after many years of ivory sales being illegal. This has made the black market price very high for elephant tusks, and tragically many elephants have been killed as a result. We didn’t know if this baby elephant was orphaned as a result of poaching, so word also went out to look for any evidence of such. For two days we looked and worried about this baby..We didn’t know how long it could survive alone. On the second morning we were driving by a Maasai village, when an elder flagged us down and said that the baby had been seen again, but had run away into the lava flow. In this area, near the chyulu Hills, there is a lot of black, hard lava rocks in big patches or “flows”. The wild animals know that it is hard for humans to walk on the rocks so they often hide deep in the lava area where the vegetation is thick.. Our friend Luka – who runs the camp with the Maasai was with us, and we quickly decided to mobilise and try to rescue this baby elephant. The elder from the village formed a search party, while we went back to our camp to call the Sheldrick orphanage to ask for their help. We got a truck that was big enough to carry the elephant, some blankets (we had learned from the trust that the first thing to do was to cover the baby’s eyes), a cot to hopefully carry the baby on, and some water. Then we got word that the search party had found him deep in the lava flow. So we headed out as fast as we could on the dirt roads. Sure enough, the elephant was so deep into the lava flow that we couldn’t reach him by car. So we set out in the heat to find our friends from the village.
No one in our group had ever done this before, so my friend Ame who owns horses seemed the most experience person in terms of capturing a strong wild animal. We came upon the baby tied to a tree, charging anyone who came near. Even though he was a baby, he still weighed somewhere near 250 pounds, and he was understandably agitated. Ame very bravely stepped forward immediately and tried to put a shirt over the elephants eyes. The shirt wasn’t big enough, and the baby promptly took it and stomped on it, then tried to eat it. Eventually we managed to get a blanket (I shouldn’t say we since all I did was film from a safe distance!) over his eyes, and lay him down. It took about 6 people to get him down and keep him there, while we tried to tie his feet and give him some water. Happily, once we got the water to his trunk he settled down a bit. He drank as much as we gave him, then we used some water to cool his skin. His feet were bloody and raw from walking so far on the lava rocks. Then the task of getting him to the truck. There was only one way and that was to carry him on a stretcher to the truck , through the lava rocks. A team effort got the job done, it took 10 men to carry while the rest of us worked to clear
a path through the rocks as best we could. It was hot, but the excitement of finding the baby in decent shape had made everyone so happy, that the arduous task went quickly. We got the elephant to a shady spot near the truck, then gave him more water. And stood him up. He was still somewhat panicked, so it took many people to hold him and to lift him into the back of the truck. Ame had been a comforting presence near his head so she decided to ride in the back of the truck with him to the airstrip as well. We had gotten word that the team from the orphanage was on the way on a private plane, so we rushed to meet them. We drove up just as the plane was landing, and we were all feeling very jubilant.
As we approached the landing strip we saw that the children from the Gifted Program at the camp had come to see the baby, as well as the guides who hadn’t been with us. AS we approached we saw the team of keepers from the orphanage, three had come out to retrieve or orphan. They quietly went about their business, assessing the baby. They touched him gently and with such confidence that he calmed down immediately. They pulled a few ticks off of him, gave him a shot of antibiotics, then lifted him from the truck.
They took off the blanket that had been covering his eyes and gave him three bottles of milk formula (wine bottle size). The baby drank them all as fast as he could. The keepers took down notes on all of the known facts. Then they strapped him in the plane and took off for Nairobi.. The children who had come to watch went to the side of the runway and stood in a line with their hands raised to say good bye to the little elephant and Thank you to the keepers for coming to get him. We were all very tired and dirty, but we were so relieved and happy that we had succeeded in helping this little elephant.
We received a call from Angela Sheldrick (daughter of David and Daphne) that the baby had arrived and seemed to be ok. Though it was clear that he had not had water or food for at least two days. Some babies arrive to the orphanage and are so depleted and traumatized that they don’t make it. So we were cautiously hopeful about ours. Angela told us that they had named him Chaimu- after the lava flow where he was found near the chyulu hills.
Ame and I had already scheduled a visit to the orphanage for the following Sunday, and we couldn’t wait to see little Chaimu and the other babies. And it did not disappoint! We met Edwin, who had been featured in the 60 Minutes segment. He told us that Chaimu could not see out of one eye. Possibly this is why he had been left behind. The vet had been to see him, and an eye specialist was coming in the next week. We were their for the evening feeding. When all of the animals come back from their day out in the bush with their keepers. First we met Maxwell, a completely blind full grown black rhino that lives at the orphanage. He moves around his very large living quarters without bumping into a thing. As we were marvelling at Maxwell, we heard a noise and turned to see Shida approaching unescorted. Shida is full grown rhino who has been released back into the surrounding park, but likes to return to his former stable for dinner. Next came Maalim, the star of the orphanage. He is a tiny baby rhino, who had been born prematurely at the Tsavo park rhino sanctuary. He was so small when he first arrived that he could fit into a woman’s handbag. Now he is healthy but small, and seems to revel in all of the attention he gets from the human visitors.
Next came the first group of baby elephants. For the first time in the history of the Sheldrick Trust they have so many orphaned elephants that they needed to separate them into two groups, under one years old and above one year. The babies follow their keepers in perfect formation, happy to be moving towards their dinner.. Each has a stall, much like a horse with their name on the door. In side are leafy greens for them to eat. A loft where the keep sleeps, and a small mattress with blankets where the baby
elephant sleeps. The evening feeding is when the humans who have “adopted” orphans can come to visit. So while the babies are fed by their keepers, the humans get
to take pictures and interact with the elephants. It is quite amazing to be able to be so close to baby elephants and rhinos. Chaimu came down the path with the over 1 year olds. He was following another baby closely, and it was clear that he wasn’t totally in step with the routine. We followed him to his stall, which he shared with an older female from the group who he liked. He came over to smell us, but didn’t seem particularly happy to see us. He was still somewhat agitated in general, which the Keeper told us is normal in some babies. We spent some time with him and his elephant friend. Then we sat with Edwin, filling out our adoption papers and asking him questions. Anyone can adopt any of the orphans for 50 dollars, even though it costs much, much more to care for them even for one day. Edwin assured us that Chaimu would calm down the longer he stayed with the keepers. And that his eyesight would be attended too. We would be receiving updates on his progress because we had donated to his care. And the Trust has a wonderful website with pictures and updates on all of the animals.
Since we left Chaimu, the orphanage has rescued many more elephant babies, as well as continuing to care for the elephants it has released into Tsavo. The situation in Kenya- drought plus poaching- is causing much trauma for the elephants. The Trust has more elephant orphans that in all of it’s previous 30 years!! I am so happy to know about the amazing work they do, and to have been able to help just one orphaned elephant. I will continue to support the Sheldrick Trust. And I thank you for reading this!