Understanding The Elephant Orphans' Project

NAIROBI NURSERY UNIT: The Infant Nursery Stage

Trousers and Natumi Rescued orphaned infant elephants arrive at the Trust’s Nairobi Nursery severely traumatised by the events that have caused the separation from their mother and family by more often than not extreme circumstances. Aside from the trauma and shock from such events the infant inevitably enters a period of deep grieving for its lost loved ones, which can last for months. During this critical period survival hangs in the balance and not all calves can be persuaded to make the effort to try to live. The Nairobi Nursery offers a secure base and a loving environment to nurture these orphans at a time of greatest need.

Over the years and through trial and error Daphne Sheldrick has developed the milk formula needed for successfully rearing a new-born elephant through its first very fragile few months. This special formula must also be combined with the correct intensive and hands-on husbandry, which involves a human ‘family’ (the Keepers) who replace the lost elephant family and stay with the orphans in the Nairobi Nursery 24 hours a day, sleeping with the infants during the night on a rotational basis. The Keepers work on rotation to avoid a calf becoming too attached to any one person and pining when that person has to take time off. To a baby elephant, who is emotionally very fragile, it is the family aspect that is all important. The Trust’s Keepers handle their ‘adopted’ infant with gentle patience, exuding love and feeding the baby on demand, little and often, which is vital to the survival of the calf. Elephants are tactile and highly social animals, so the human "family" is always encouraged to be in physical contact with the babies as much as possible, talking to them and demonstrating genuine heartfelt affection, as would their elephant family.

Gradually the calf will settle into a 3-hourly feeding routine throughout the day and night, with the Keepers always present to represent the orphan’s lost family. The orphan must be watched at all times and their Keepers must protect them with blankets when cold, rainwear when wet and sunscreen and an umbrella when exposed to sun during the first 2 months of life. Infant elephants are also difficult feeders and the Keepers need endless patience to encourage the calf to take sufficient milk to sustain their life and help them to thrive. To achieve this, the tip of the calf’s trunk must feel comfortable before the calf will suckle; this is done by resting its trunk against a hung blanket, which feels a little like its mother, only then will the calf slowly relax. Gradually the calf will then transfer its trunk to the neck, face or armpit of the Keeper. The first molars erupt between 1 and 4 months, this teething can trigger fever and diarrhoea which can be life threatening, plunging the calf into rapid physical decline through dehydration, yet the Keepers are always at hand to provide the best care possible and all the medical attention they need.

Like human children, baby elephants need toys and stimulation. Highly intelligent, with a giant memory, they duplicate human children in many ways, so during infancy distractions of all sorts must be built into the daily routine. The Keepers take the orphans on walks in varied surroundings with unlimited access to Nature's toys such as sticks and stones, plus artificial playthings such as rubber tubes and balls. Cause for celebration is when a baby elephant plays for the first time, because only then can one be sure of a reasonable chance of success as an elephant will only thrive if they are happy.

Elephants like all wild animals have instinctive natural needs. Wild babies need freedom and exposure to a natural environment in order for instinct to become honed and equip them with the strength they need to reintegrate into the wild. As in human children, discipline establishes the boundaries of acceptable behaviour around humans, but this must be meted out gently and with sensitivity, and only after the calf has settled down and understands tone of voice and the accusing wagging of a finger. However, it is essential to make a big show of forgiveness later on, so that the calf understands that it was unpopular not because it is not loved, but rather for a wrongdoing. With elephants, one reaps what one sows, and how the animal will react in the company of humans when grown is dependent upon how it has been handled and treated by humans when young.

Elephants coming home front of house

The third and fourth milk dependent years are weaning years, when both the quantity and frequency of milk feeds is gradually reduced as the calf ingests larger quantities of vegetation. Elephants need a varied diet comprised of several different plants as well as the bark of trees which contain the minerals and trace elements needed to build and strengthen such huge bones. This plant selection is instinctive within the genetic memory given at birth and not something that has to be taught by a human.

Sunyei playing with her Keepers


When the Nursery orphans are thriving after their time in Nairobi and are psychologically and physically stable for relocation, they are transferred to either the Voi or Ithumba Stockades in Tsavo East National Park or the Umani Springs Stockades in the Kibwezi Forest. Tsavo encompasses an area of 8,000 square miles (over 12,000 square kms) containing Kenya’s largest single population of elephants, which currently stands at approximately 12,000. It is in this magnificent environment where most of our hand-reared orphans will ultimately live, for this is the only Park in Kenya that offers them the space they need for a quality of life that elephants so desperately need.

The Voi Unit: This Unit is the original rehabilitation unit, first built by David Sheldrick during his time as warden of Tsavo East National Park back in 1948 when he was based at Voi in southern Tsavo East.

The Ithumba Unit: This Unit, built in 2004, is the second rehabilitation unit to be built in Tsavo East and is situated at Ithumba in the Northern sector of the Park, where the DSWT manages two self-catering camps, Ithumba Camp and Ithumba Hill.

The Umani Springs Unit: This Unit was built in 2014 and is located in the Kibwezi Forest, one of the DSWT’s Saving Habitats projects where the Trust holds a concession to manage and protect this incredibly unique ground water forest. Here too, the Trust owns and manages a self-catering lodge called ‘Umani Springs’. The newest of the Trust’s rehabilitation units, this Unit is more suitable for some of the Trust’s orphans who have been compromised physically due to injuries or ailments making them ill-equipped for the harsher environment of Tsavo East.

The orphans are translocated along with their Keepers, who rotate between the Nursery and the other rehabilitation units, so that the elephants know their Keepers and the men know the elephants. On arrival they are welcomed warmly and instantly accepted into the still-dependent group of larger orphans who have preceded them through the Nursery. During this key stage they will begin the gradual process of reintegration back into the wild elephant community, with days spent walking with the Keepers far and wide in the bush, encountering the scent of wild herds. After their days in the bush, they then re-join their Keepers to return to communal Night Stockades where they can be protected against attack by predators whilst still vulnerable.


Tsavo Orphans June 2003

The length of time it will take for an orphaned elephant to become a “wild” elephant, comfortable amongst a wild herd is influenced by various factors, including the age that the elephant was orphaned, its unique personality and the friends that they have made. But gradually the orphans will begin to fraternize more with other elephants, eventually finding elephant company more stimulating than that of humans.

Whilst on their daily sojourns in the bush 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. 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.

Each orphan decides when to make the transition into the wild herds. That choice rests with each and every individual but the bulls are more independent than the females, who tend to remain together as a “family”, before deciding to go wild as a group. No orphan is ever simply “tipped out”, each one is gradually introduced through access and exposure. Once “wild” many orphans still keep in touch with the Unit, returning from time to time to visit and also when in need of help, confident that their human family will be there for them when they do.

The Females:

All female elephants long to nurture and love those younger and smaller than them and are naturally "maternal", a feature that manifests itself in the Nursery, with older female babies caring and protective of those younger. Female elephant 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 behaviour would probably not exist.

Splinter groups, usually led by female elephants that were Junior Matriarchs in their time, often peel off from the main ex-orphan group led by the oldest female Matriarch, taking with them whoever voluntarily wants to come along. 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. 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 love 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. They automatically became absorbed into wild units when still relatively young. The current situation is different, comprised as it is of elephants orphaned as new-borns or in early infancy, so the attachment to the human surrogate family is much stronger and more lasting.

The Bulls:

Just as human boys and girls are different, so are 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. 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. 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 with those that they are able to dominate because it gives them a feeling of power and makes them feel good.

Ilingwezi taking his bottle

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