Sheldrick Wildlife Trust / Collis

A Day in the Life of Orphan Elephants

In nature, raising an elephant is a family affair. When a baby elephant is orphaned, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust steps in to offer love and safety before ultimately reintroducing it to the wild.

When Angela Sheldrick, the CEO of Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, receives a call about an orphaned infant elephant in need—with injuries inflicted by humans, or suffering from starvation after the loss of its mother—she and her team spring into action by car or helicopter to whisk the baby back to their Nursery in Nairobi National Park.

Here, using a model developed in the 1950s by Angela’s mother, Daphne Sheldrick, the Trust’s team of Keepers offer a secure and loving environment to the orphans 24 hours a day: sleeping with them so the elephants feel less alone; playing with them or offering a finger to suckle; protecting them with rainwear and blankets; and feeding the orphans every three hours on a special milk formula. “One cannot be family to an elephant unless you appreciate them as equals,” says Angela, whose husband, Robert Carr-Hartley, and sons Taru and Roan, are also involved in the effort. “Elephants are complex, emotional creatures. They feel keenly and love deeply. After a lifetime with elephants, I no longer see them as a separate species, but as kindred spirits. I know my mother felt the same.”

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust / Collis

But eventually these nurtured babies grow bigger…and then what? When the orphans reach adolescence, they need more space than the Nursery can provide and are ready to acclimate to life in the wild. The ellies are rehomed to the Tsavo Conservation Area, nearly 200 miles to the southeast and home to Kenya’s largest elephant population—12,800 individuals, twice what it was in the poached-out 1980s, thanks in great part to the SWT’s efforts. Here, these adolescents are again cared for by dedicated Keepers, gaining skills and strength to leave the compound and live in the wild. “Just like with humans, elephants’ formative years influence the creatures they become as adults,” Angela Sheldrick says. “When they grow up feeling loved, they are able to embody those values as adults, nurturing their own families in the same manner.”

To date, the SWT has successfully raised 263 orphans, and many of them are now living back in the wild. Many have gone on to start a family, with at least 38 babies born to elephants rescued, raised and reintegrated by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

“When they grow up feeling loved, they are able to embody those values as adults, nurturing their own families in the same manner.”

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust / Collis

Here is a look at the Ithumba orphans’ day:

In Ithumba, orphans wake up as the first rays of sun peek above the horizon. There are currently 38 dependent orphans at Ithumba.

Keepers prepare warm bottles for the elephants who are still milk-dependent. The air erupts in a chorus of rumbles and trumpets from the orphans waiting for their milk. The orphans line up at the back of their stockades where the Keepers dole out bottles.

After breakfast, the stockade gates are open. Outside the orphans socialize and continue their feast with lucerne, a type of alfalfa. (And/or: The water troughs outside the stockades are topped up with water that has been desalinated from boreholes.)

The herd decides that it’s time to move on and walk in the direction of the bush. Out here, orphans that have grown up and returned to the wild often come back to say hi. It’s not uncommon to see 50 or even 100 elephants—wild ones and ex orphans—at the stockades in a single day.

The midday mud bath is the elephants’ social hour. The orphans guzzle down their milk before continuing on to the water hole for a swim. They are often joined by a number of wild bulls.

Covered in a fresh layer of golden soil, the herd heads back into the bush. They explore new places and revisit favorite haunts, preparing for a life in the wild.

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust / Collis

At sunset it’s time to head home, where the final milk feed of the day awaits. There are five “bedrooms” in Ithumba, and elephants sleep according to age. More batchelor herds or wild-living orphans may turn up for the night, knowing it is a place they can rest safely. To date, the ex-orphans have produced 38 babies. Now generations of elephants converge beneath the star-studded sky. “Elephants truly can read your heart—and when you have earned their love, they never forget it,” Angela Sheldrick says.



Watch a video from the Chantecailles’ trip to the Ithumba Reintegration Unit in January 2020


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