Understanding The Elephant Orphans' Project

The Nursery Stage:

Trousers and Natumi The most important thing in the world to a baby elephant is its mother and its extended family. Female elephants are particularly vulnerable to psychological despair having lost their natural family. Young bulls are more resilient, mainly because female family members will be bonded together for life by emotional attachments that are lasting and strong. Young bulls leave their natal family at puberty, preferring the company of other young bulls, and emulating the example of high ranking dominant males within the elephant society. That said, however, bulls will never forget their female elephant family, even though it is very normal for young bulls to develop a "hero-worship" on the dominant males within their society, to learn from them what elephants need to know in order to limit conflict. Elephants fight seriously only when evenly matched in age, rank and tusk size. Such encounters between such powerful contestants often prove fatal to one, and sometimes both parties, so it crucial therefore for a bull elephant to understand his place within the male rank hierarchy.

In infancy, the family lost to the orphaned elephants must be replaced by a human equivalent i.e. enough Keepers to represent a “family”. It is imperative to take care of the mind of the orphan as well as the physical aspect, so that they grow up psychologically stable. If they are psychologically unstable and neurotic they will not be welcomed into the wild herds and risk rejection. The psychological aspect of hand-rearing elephants is just as crucial as everything else, the human Keepers substituting for the orphan’s lost elephant family, with the babies 24 hours a day, traveling with them as a group during the day, and sleeping alongside them within their stable at night. During early infancy the Keepers must be in physical contact at all times, replacing the contact the baby would have enjoyed from its elephant family. It is also important to rotate the Keepers so that a different Keeper sleeps with a different elephant each night in order to avoid any strong attachment to just one person. This proves counter-productive and plunge the elephant into grieving when that person has to take time off. Psychological grief can trigger life threatening physical problems such as diarrheoa in the infant elephant orphans, who are essentially extremely fragile during their milk dependency.

Elephants are tactile and highly social animals, so the human "family" is encouraged to fondle the babies gently, talk to them and demonstrate genuine heartfelt affection, as would their elephant family. Elephants can read a person's heart and mind, so it is important that such affection is sincere and not just a facade.

Elephants coming home front of house

Elephants have a rapid metabolism, and need regular feeding 24 hours a day, initially if newborn, on demand, but gradually encouraged to slot into a 3 hourly routine during their first fully milk dependent year of life. After the age of 5 months, cooked oatmeal porridge can be added to fortify the milk feeds. However, baby elephants must have milk need milk and cannot live without it during their first three 3 years of life. However, as the calf's intake of vegetation increases, so the frequency of milk feeds can be reduced to three times a day. Nevertheless, orphaned elephants need supplementation of coconut, which contains the correct fat, until the age of five years, and even beyond, especially during extremely dry periods. One can gauge the condition of an elephant, not by the size of its stomach (they often suffer bloat, particularly if mal-nourished) but by the face. The cheekbones below the eye sockets should not be visible, for baby elephants, like their human counterparts, should have plump cheeks.

Sunyei playing with her Keepers

Ithumba and the Voi Rehabilitaion Units:

Assuming that the orphaned Nursery Elephants are psychologically and physically stable after the age of 2 years they are then transferred to one of the Trust’s two Rehabilitation Centres in Tsavo East National Park, accompanied by their Keepers. (All the Trust’s Elephant Keepers rotate between the Nursery and the two Rehabilitation facilities in Tsavo, so that all the elephants know all the men and all the men know all the elephants.) There, newcomers will recognize some of the Keepers and also some of the orphans who shared Nursery time with them in Nairobi and who are older and have preceded them.

During the rehabilitation stage the orphans walk in the bush with their Keepers to browse on natural vegetation on a daily basis, enjoy a noon mudbath, continue browsing throughout the afternoon but return to their Night Stockades in the evening where they are protected from predation. The Keepers now no longer sleep in with the elephants, (who share a large Stockade), but are housed within earshot to be at hand during the night should the elephants need reassurance. Once over the Nursery stage, and in Tsavo, the orphans begin their long and gradual re-integration back into the wild elephant community, understanding that at any age an elephant duplicates its human counterpart in terms of age progression towards maturity. For the first two years of life an elephant can be classified as an infant; as a child until the age of 10; a teenager between l0 and 20’; a young adult in the twenties; mature in the thirties and forties, and becoming elderly by the age of fifty. Longevity duplicates us humans as well, influenced one way or the other by factors such as stress, diet, clean air and water etc., but given protection and favorable circumstances, an elephant should normally live into its seventies and even eighties, as do humans. Sadly, today, seldom do due to human predation for ivory!

Elephants communicate with a sophisticated body language and sounds that are audible to human ears, both of which are intuitive at birth. However, they learn to communicate in low infrequency “infrasound” which transcends distance and is beyond human hearing range and this they have to learn from other elephants. Hence, the younger the orphans can be exposed to a wild situation and older elephants, the easier the learning process and the transition back into a natural wild existence will be. However, the orphans also learn to understand commands in English, since all the Keepers use English when talking to them, careful not to confuse them with too many different languages. Elephants are anxious to please those they love, so the Keepers control them simply by tone of voice, the waggling of a finger or the pointing of an arm to indicate direction. At no time do any of the Keepers even carry a twig, nor are the orphans ever beaten or forced to do something they would rather not do. However, because they love their human family, they are by and large extremely obedient. During the rehabilitation stage, older female “Matriarchs” instill the discipline and ultimately grown female Matriarchs of wild herds keep the young in line.

The orphaned elephants are welcomed into wild herds, allowed to play with wild age mates and tolerated as long as they behave normally and well. Bullying is not tolerated in elephant society and perpetrators are punished by being driven out of the herd to spend “time out” alone where they are denied the protection of the herd. This is a serious punishment for a wrong-doer, since elephants are essentially extremely fearful animals and derive comfort from a herd situation.

Elephants are born with a genetic memory. Aspects important to survival such as subservient behavior and the selection of edible food plants etc., is instinctive but instinct has to be honed by exposure to a wild situation, such factors reasons to transfer the infant elephants to Tsavo as young as feasibly possible, and to complete the milk dependency amongst older orphans with exposure to the wild elephant community as well as natural sounds and scent.


Tsavo Orphans June 2003

The Re-integration Process:

Elephants are highly social animals and one of the easiest of all wild species to return to the wild, when grown, providing the wild herds have not been severely harassed and traumatized by humans. Under such circumstances the human scent on an orphan can at first trigger fear and rejection, but elephants are highly intelligent beings, who reason and think and, like humans, have compassion for others less fortunate.. The older orphans always welcome and embrace newcomers from the Nursery, and show them “the ropes”. Escorting the youngsters out into the bush to browse and introducing them to friendly wild herds already known to them in their daily wanderings. Female elephants are extremely maternal and protective of the young, and it is very normal for the females to select a smaller baby as their particular “favorite” who enjoys special loving and care as the “chosen” one. The older elephants also allow the smaller orphans to lead the way out from the Stockades in the morning to browse, to the noon mud bath venue, and back again in the evening. This is a very sought after privilege for the Youngsters.

The length of time it will take for an orphaned elephant to become a "wild" elephant, comfortable amongst, and a member of, the wild community is influenced by various factors.

  1. At what age the elephant was orphaned, and how well it can recollect its elephant family and other elephants, if at all. Those orphaned as newborns will have no recollection, because comprehension only dawns at about the age of 2 – 3 weeks.
  2. The personality of each individual, which, just like us humans, differs. Some elephants are outgoing, independent and adventurous; others more timid, shy, and more clinging to their human Keepers for reassurance and comfort. Little bulls tend to be more adventurous and independent than the girls.
  3. Friends. Just like human children, the elephants are more comfortable when they can count on the backing of their friends during exposure to the unknown. Those that have been raised alone in the Nursery without the company of other orphans feel more insecure and vulnerable than those who are bonded by friendship and can count on the support of their friends.

Each orphan decides when to leave the human family and become a "wild" elephant again. The choice of “when” rests with each and every individual and is not determined by us. They are never just tipped out into a wild situation, but rather just introduced gradually through access and exposure which can span l0 years. However, the orphans who have grown up together regard themselves as a loosely affiliated family, irrespective of their very different origins and those that have accomplished the transition to "wild" status usually still keep in touch, returning to keep in touch with others who are still Stockade based at night.

It is common for Ex orphans now living wild to return and take one of the Stockade based “Juniors” off for a trial “Night Out” in the wild, and also not uncommon for the aspiring graduate to feel daunted and insecure without human protection during the hours of darkness. If so, he or she is escorted back to the Stockades during the night (usually by a couple of the Ex orphaned bulls) and handed back to the Keepers again to return to the security of the Stockades. (Elephants, like humans, have limited night vision, and as such it is understandable that some loose their nerve, and opt to return.) This is obviously understood and respected by their elders so “to-ing and fro-ing” during the reintegration process is not uncommon. However, the call of the wild is persistent and strong and all our orphans end up leading perfectly normal wild lives again as part of the wild elephant community of Tsavo National Park, a Protected Area that is large enough to afford an elephant the space it needs for a quality of life.

Elephants never forget, so the orphans will remember those particular individuals who replaced their lost elephant family during infancy and adolescence and will trust and love them for life. They also turn to their human family when in need of help when grown. A few of our Ex orphans have returned to the Stockades to have snares and arrows removed. Two who are now mothers of wild-born calves brought their babies back to the Stockades when their milk yield failed during the long drought of 2009. By rushing down Dairy cubes and other supplements, we managed to boost the mothers’ milk bar and save the two babies. However, such trust and love does not extend to all humans but encompasses only specific individuals who represented the elephants’ family for the orphans will receive a different message from their wild counterparts and will learn to fear humans that are not known to them.

The Females:

All female elephants long to nurture and love those younger and smaller and are naturally "maternal", a feature that manifests itself in the Nursery, with older female babies caring and protective of those younger. Female elephants all long for a family, and orphans who have lost their natural family and who grow up as self appointed "Matriarchs" often resort to trying to snatch young babies from the wild units, something that is not popular with the wild Matriarchs and breeds dissention and resentment within elephant society. In a perfect world where families are intact, such behavior would probably not exist.

For us, the reintegration back into the wild system of the orphaned elephants has been a very interesting learning curve, because it is unique, covered in detail in the monthly Keepers’ Diaries posted on our website. Splinter groups, usually led by elephants that were Junior Matriarchs in their time, often peel off from the main Ex Orphaned Group led by the oldest female Matriarch, taking with them whoever voluntarily wants to come along, which is usually others of a similar age group. However, it has become abundantly clear that all the orphans, whether traveling separately or loosely attached to another wild herd, remain in very close touch with one another, and with the main Matriarch, traveling separately obviously with her consent, often turning up at the Stockades to escort the Keeper Dependent group out to meet the main Ex Orphaned Group at a pre-destined point in the bush. Whenever a baby is wild born to one of the Ex Orphans, other females within the group immediately take on the role of very caring “Nannies” who, together with the mother, shoulder the responsibility for caring and extending loving to the new baby.

Previously, the orphaned females that survived during the fifties, sixties and early seventies were all orphaned much older than 2 years of age, and as such could remember being part of their elephant family clearly. They automatically became absorbed into wild units when still relatively young. The current situation is different, comprised as it is of elephants orphaned as newborns or in early infancy, so the attachment to the human surrogate family is much stronger and more lasting.

For those humans who have earned the love and respect of an elephant and who are viewed as part of the Elephant Family, it has been a life changing experience.

The Bulls:

Just as human boys and girls are different, so are the bull and cow elephants. The little bulls are more independent, more competitive within their peer group, always eager to dominate and become "top dog"; a position that others constantly and continually challenge, particularly if they are close in age. (In a natural elephant family, 5 years would separate siblings). Young bulls wrestle a lot and tend to be much "rougher" in play than their girl counterparts, tending also to be more disobedient and "unruly"; more mischievous and adventurous. They enjoy "testing the boundaries" and in so doing, derive pride out of generating admiration from their peers for exploits that are considered "brave". It is also not unusual for young bulls to suffer from a feeling of inferiority if they happen to be of a more submissive nature and cannot dominate their age mates. This will also become evident if they have had a rough time from wild age-mates as well. During this phase, they tend to "throw their weight around" those that they are able to dominate because it gives them a feeling of power and makes them feel "good" .

The orphaned elephants raised in Kenya are not trained to do anything they would not normally and naturally do. In the Nursery the Keepers convey disapproval by the waggling of a finger and a sharp spoken word. Once the orphans understand the spoken word and love their Keepers sufficiently to want to please them, they are generally very obedient, and if not a determined "shove" is usually all that is needed. However, having disciplined an orphan, it is essential to make amends later, so that the elephant understands that it has been disciplined for a misdemeanor, and not because it is not loved. This is very important, because elephants can harbor grudges and settle the score years later.

When a young bull becomes a teenager, he must be respected as would be a wild elephant bull. There must be no attempt made by human Attendants to dominate him in any way, and prevent him from going wherever he wishes. This will only result in resentment and exacerbate resentment.

Our Aim:

The aim of our Orphans' Project, is to rear the orphaned elephants in such a way that they grow up psychologically sound and in the fullness of time take their place back where they rightly belong, and where they can enjoy a normal wild life amongst the wild elephant community of Tsavo National Park. Elephants need space. The Tsavo Conservation Area is over 64,000 square km in extent, and as such can provide the space an elephant needs for a quality of life. No space in captivity is adequate for an elephant, however attractive it may appear to us humans.

Ilingwezi taking his bottle

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