Movement caught my eye and I squinted against the late morning sun, scanning the African bush for signs of life.
Seconds later, Ziwa, a two year old Amboseli elephant, led a herd of youngsters into the clearing where I stood. Eight elephant calves followed him excitedly, knowing that breakfast and a mud bath were soon to come. The Orphans of Tsavo and the heart of the Orphan’s Project, they are in a rehabilitation program supported by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) in Nairobi, Kenya.
As I watched the rescued elephants drink milk from cartons the length of my arm, I listened to their keepers share the orphan's tragic stories. Some of their herds were killed by starvation or dehydration because of humans encroaching on their habitat — their limited resources continued to dwindle until they could no longer survive. Despite government action in recent years, illegal poachers continue to threaten other herds. Most often, only the calves are spared by the poachers. But without protection or food, their isolation in the wild becomes a death sentence in itself.
Although most of the orphans are rescued within Kenya’s borders, a keeper noted that there are those, such as young Madiba, who were rescued as far away as Botswana. Like Madiba, each elephant is named to reflect its origin, whether it is the name of an important person, a nearby tribe, village or elephant population. It helps donors learn more about the history and background of the orphan they choose to support.
As the young elephants happily interacted with each other in their new home at Tsavo East National Park, it was difficult to imagine their previous fates. I learned that the confident and playful Ziwa was the newest addition to the family, having arrived only weeks prior. He was rescued from a water hole, where he was found trying to protect his dying mother from a pack of hyenas.
Thanks to DSWT, the orphans are cared for through infancy and into childhood (which starts at age 2) before slowly being reintroduced to a wild herd in the Tsavo Conservation — a 64,000 square kilometer park that ensures quality of life and protection from poachers.
The trust was founded in 1977 by Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick — David Sheldrick’s wife. Daphne established the trust to honor her late husband, who was deeply invested in conservation and protecting wildlife. It is currently managed by the Sheldrick’s daughter, Angela.
While DSWT ensures all orphans receive the highest level of care, some arrive at Tsavo healthier than others. Most often, they come with physical and psychological needs. Many have been without their mother’s milk for some time, causing malnourishment and various health problems. Because elephants are social animals, the keepers see them struggle at first with depression and separation anxiety from their herd.
It is DSWT’s aim to not only nurse the orphans back to health by providing supplemental milk, food and natural shelter, but also to take care of their emotional needs. This is achieved by replicating a family model within the orphanage, so the elephants establish healthy relationships that mimic those they would develop in a herd.
Each keeper represents a family member, providing companionship for the orphans, 24 hours a day. But the keepers also rotate which elephant they spend time with, so that one elephant does not become too attached to one keeper. If attachment does occur, it becomes more difficult to reintroduce the elephant into the wild.
The orphaned infants are typically cared for at the Nairobi Orphan Nursery until they are 2 years old. At that time, if they are physically and psychologically healthy, they are transferred to a rehabilitation unit with their keepers. During “childhood” rehabilitation, they are slowly weaned from human companionship and start to seek comfort from the other orphans in their company.
The time it takes for each elephant to move past rehabilitation and be reintroduced in the wild varies. It is a long process that often takes many years. But it is a process that Edwin Lusichi, project manager of the Nairobi Orphan Nursery, says is worth the time and effort.
“Seeing the gift of life given to a very special creature helps me know I am doing something useful and important with my life,” says Edwin. “I reap rewards daily by being able to watch and learn and share a remarkable bond with an animal as challenging, as interesting, as special and as intelligent as an elephant.”
To date, the Orphan’s Project has rescued over 150 orphaned elephants.
Gabriel and I try to give back whenever possible. There are a few ways you can help us give back, too.
- Continue volunteering for organizations on our travels by assisting with transportation costs (i.e., bus tickets to reach a village or school)
- Raise awareness of different causes
- Purchase supplies (i.e. educational tools, medical/hygiene products needed by organizations, etc.) to donate when we volunteer
3) Are you connected with a non-profit that is doing something awesome? Send us an email detailing the name, location, website (if applicable), and volunteer opportunities available there. After reviewing, we will reach out to you to discuss the possibility of partnering together.