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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

In Kenya, wildlife orphans get a second chance at life

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

By Staci-lee Sherwood

History of Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Elephants have always fascinated people. Growing up I was influenced by watching Wild Kingdom and National Geographic to appreciate their beauty and complex family structure. Their struggle to survive against mounting pressure from trophy hunters, ivory traders, habitat loss and degradation can seem insurmountable. Amidst all this negative news a bright hope shines in Nairobi, Kenya. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been a beckon of hope for many orphaned elephants for decades.

In the southwest part of Kenya is Tsavo National Park the country’s largest park, which is divided into an east and west side. David Sheldrick became a founding warden in 1948 and worked with wife Daphne helping to make Tsavo the grand park it is today. The couple spent years rescuing orphaned wildlife with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. In 1977, after David passed away, Daphne founded the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to continue his conservation work.

I spoke with Sean Michael, Director of Communications, about the history, goals and successes of the trust. When asked how many animals had received help at the trust Sean said “Over the years more than 285 orphaned elephants have been raised through our program. Many are now living wild in Tsavo National Park and raising their own families - to date we have met 50 calves born to orphans we rescued, raised, and reintegrated back into the wild.“ Impressive numbers especially since elephants take many years before reaching the age where they can safely be released back into the wild. The older the elephant is at the time they are orphaned the less time they need at the sanctuary while tiny calves need more time. It’s all based on the individual pace each animal takes. According to Sean some orphans will stay for a decade or longer while others get that ‘call of the wild’ a few short years later.

Elephants in the wild

Life in the wild is not without adventures and perils. Despite a severe decline in elephant population the ivory trade still exists, leaving many orphans in its wake many of whom are also killed. Touching on the issue of ivory poaching Sean said “During the ivory poaching crisis of 2011-2016, most of our orphans lost their mothers to ivory poachers. That remains a persistent threat, but today, human-wildlife conflict is the greatest challenge.” Other problems for baby elephants can occur because of environmental degradation or even weather. “At the moment, much of Kenya is in the grips of a drought, and competition over resources (food and water) has driven an uptick in human-wildlife conflict. Some orphans are the victims themselves; others saw their mothers killed by gunfire, spears, or arrows. The drought is another challenge itself.”

A day in the life for the orphans

For orphans and caregivers the day starts early at 6am. They get milk bottles, then walk towards the forest in Nairobi National Park for some play. A close watch by their Keepers ensures their safety. “They are encouraged to explore, play, and browse. As they socialize with their peers, they also learn skills that will help them in their wild lives.“ said Sean.

Caring for baby animals takes a lot of work, they are bottle fed every three hours. The bonds between animals and caregivers are strong and can last a lifetime. Sean explainsAt 11 o’clock, they head to the mud bath in age groups, where they have their midday feed and spend an hour wallowing and dust bathing. The rest of the afternoon is spent in the forest. At 5 o’clock, the herd heads home for the evening. Older orphans sleep in open stockades, while the babies are in stables. Everyone is bunked up with a Keeper, who provides company and care throughout the night.”

Toto enjoying a bottle

Life after the sanctuary

People wonder how well released animals survive in the wild after being cared for by humans. I asked Sean, “The greatest testament of success of our Orphans’ Project are the wild babies born to orphans we rescued, raised, and reintegrated back into the wild. To date, we have met 50 calves born to our rewilded orphans.” Since 1977 there has been a national ban on trophy hunting in Kenya. Asked about threats from poachers Sean said Our two Nurseries and three Reintegration Units are located in protected areas that are heavily patrolled by our Anti-Poaching and Aerial Units. However, one must always be vigilant. Our orphaned rhinos are accompanied by KWS rangers, as is KWS protocol.”

Bonding with a caregiver

Equally important is preserving habitat for animals still living free and those being released. Without a safe protected place to live, forage and breed the chances of preventing extinction rise, and captivity is no way to live. Sean explains “We are equally committed to securing and protecting wildernesses they call home. Our conservation work spans across Kenya, including 22 Anti-Poaching Teams, a Canine Unit in partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service; six Mobile Veterinary Units led by KWS vets; an Aerial Unit that supports all manner of field operations; water installations to provide drought relief for wildlife; community support for Kenyans living alongside protected habitats, from food donations to scholarships to field trips; and extensive habitat preservation initiatives.”

Big challenges include dealing with habitat loss and human wildlife conflict. These are global problems we need to solve before we loss these majestic animals. “As we continue to ramp up our existing conservation projects, we also look to expand our habitat preservation initiatives, ensuring that vulnerable rangelands (including those that act as ‘buffer zones’ along National Parks and protected areas) remain protected.” This is why both financial and community support is so important.

Twins Lexi and Kaia enjoy a nuzzle from mom

Not just elephants but rhinos and giraffes too

Before caring for orphaned elephants they had rhinos, a few years ago they added orphaned giraffes. Sean explains “Our first projects were actually rhino-based preservation. Elephants didn’t come into the picture until later, when WCMD (which is now the Kenya Wildlife Service) rescued two orphans in Nairobi. They knew Daphne had the expertise to raise orphaned elephants from her Tsavo days, and requested her input. That led to the creation of our Nairobi Nursery, and spawned the Orphans’ Project.” To date they have raised 17 orphaned rhinos successfully, with Max and Apollo still in their care. They also have 2 giraffes, Kiko who is somewhat independent and Twiggy. These animals and many more are available for adoption.

Twiggy the giraffe takes a stroll while Apollo rests by a pond

A close up of Solio

Twiggy enjoying breakfast

How you can help

The Trust runs on donations and in times of economic uncertainty donations can be hard to come by. “Donors make all our work possible. Every single contribution makes an enormous impact, directly enabling our field conservation projects.” Sean said. I have been ‘adopting’ orphaned elephants for decades, recently adding an orphaned rhino and giraffe. Their work is so important, especially now since these animals are under constant threat of extinction. Donations are allocated where needed most. Funds help a variety of things from field conservation projects, rescuing and raising the orphans, veterinary treatments and securing habitats. Their wish list allows people to 'purchase' most-needed items, a link for that is provided below.

Do’s & don’t to help these animals

· No hunting

· Do not purchase ivory – even ‘fake’ ivory, as there is no way to tell if it’s real

· Support conservation efforts and spread the word

· If you see an animal in distress /any sign of illegal activity report to Kenya Wildlife Service phone +254 (20) 2379407 /Toll free: 0800597000

To learn about the Trust & see available orphans for adoption

Click for their wish list of needed items

Click for law enforcement info

Also published on Emagazine on November 29, 2022

Also published on The Good Men Project on December 20, 2022

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