On the outskirts of Nairobi is a very special place, where orphaned baby elephants find safety and refuge. As an elephant lover I was charmed by the residents and inspired by those who care for them here.
This is the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, part of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It was founded in 1977 by Daphne Sheldrick in honour of the memory of her late husband, the famous naturalist and founding Warden of Tsavo East National Park, David Sheldrick. While they have a broad mission centred on the conservation and protection of wildlife (for example, anti-poaching schemes and programmes to educate local communities), their most famous undertaking is the Orphans’ Project, rescuing baby elephants who have been injured and/or abandoned by their herd for some reason.
They take them in, treat them if necessary; and when they are old enough they release them into a controlled wild environment in Tsavo. These elephants then go on to have babies of their own, helping to support the survival of the species in Kenya. To date they have successfully hand-raised over 150 infant elephants and reintegrated the orphans back into the wild herds of Tsavo.
Visiting the orphanage
Public visiting times are carefully restricted to minimise the impact on the elephants’ routine, which is designed to habituate them as soon as possible for release into the wild. So they spend most of their day out in the park, eating and wandering freely; the keepers simply follow them to ensure their safety and well-being. But paying visitors are one of the main sources of income to fund their care, so a balance needs to be struck. The chosen solution is a one hour slot each day, 11.00 – 12.00, when the elephants are brought together in a roped off area to meet their adoring public. Consequently when we arrived at about 10.30 we found ourselves by no means the first visitors to get here; and by the time the gate was opened at 10.55 there was quite a crowd gathered.
Our driver Jackson encouraged us to hurry in, so that we could secure a spot in the front row; and he showed us to a position where he said we would get good views of the elephants arriving. We did indeed get great views from this vantage point, resulting in far too many photos of these super-cute animals! I will try to restrain myself and share only a limited number here, but prepare for elephant overkill nevertheless!
Meet the babies
Soon after we took our places the first group appeared, splashing eagerly through a small pool towards the waiting crowds. This group consisted of eight of the youngest currently in the nursery, ranging from less than a year old to about 18 months.
They clearly love these sessions, probably because it also means a drink of milk. They are given baby formula; cow’s milk is apparently too fatty for them and, we were told, milking a wild elephant would be too difficult! We learned this fact, and many others, from one of the keepers, Edward; he gave a really informative talk as we watched the elephants enjoy their drinks and, it seemed clear, each other’s company.
The elephants’ stories
Edward told us in general terms about the work of the organisation. He then talked about each elephant in turn, telling us their name, where they were found and, if known, the circumstances of their mother’s death and the reason they were taken into the centre. All the information about each elephant is also on the centre’s website if you are curious.
Some examples include:
Jotto, a male, who came to the centre aged just one month in February 2016. He was discovered fallen down a well by herdsmen who had taken their cattle for water. You can read more about Jotto’s rescue here.
Emoli, another male, who was ten months old when he came to the centre. He had been found collapsed and barely breathing by tourists on a game drive in Kanderi. His full story is here.
Malkia, a female, who was found beside her dying mother when she was just six months old, still nursing and far too young to fend for herself. Read the sad story of the death of her mother here.
There are many more such stories on the website; these are just a few examples and are ones I remember Edward recounting. I have no idea though which elephants are which in my photos!
As they moved around seeking out the branches of fresh green leaves placed in the enclosure by the keepers, they at times came quite close to the ropes. We were told it was fine to pet them, as long as we didn’t make any sudden noises. I was thrilled when one came close enough for us to do just that; and I got a sense of the power of even so young an elephant when he backed into me while changing direction!
Meet the older orphans
Eventually the youngest elephants left; and a group of ten older ones, aged from nearly two to about three, arrived to take their place.
In addition to my many photos, I made a short video of both the babies and the older group.
Again Edward introduced to each by name. These ones had started to grow their tusks; he gave an impassioned plea to us all to be sure to avoid buying any ivory products in order to play our small part in stifling the trade that leads to poaching.
Edward also explained how we could contribute to the work of the orphanage by adopting an elephant – a great idea. It costs $50 a year and in return the centre keeps ‘foster parents’ regularly updated on the progress of their youngster and the work as a whole through the online Keepers’ Diaries.
While we could have done this on the spot (and some visitors did), we decided it would be better to do so through the website on our return home so as not to keep Jackson waiting. That way we could also choose which to adopt at our leisure. If I’ve piqued your interest about the work of the Orphans’ Project and you’d like to support it, all the relevant information is again on the website. You can also adopt one of the centre’s rhinos or giraffes!
I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting these delightful creatures as much as I did. For more close encounters with elephants check out my post about the fantastic MandaLao project in Laos.
I visited Nairobi in 2018