How It All Began

Published on the 30th of January, 2020

As we embark on a new decade, I wanted to take a look back to where it all began, our early days at the Nairobi Nursery.

In its 32 years of existence, the Nursery has been a place of hope and healing for countless orphans of all species. Today, it is is home to 16 orphaned elephants, not to mention our resident blind rhino, Maxwell, and cheeky Kiko the giraffe. Take a step back in time with me and discover how this remarkable place came to be.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Nairobi Nursery: How It All Began

Some sixty years ago, the first Game Warden of Kenya, Captain Archie Ritchie, wrote this about the fledgling Nairobi National Park:

I want to give an assurance, a guarantee that the Park is wholly “genuine.” Persons visiting it now for the first time may well imagine that its faunal population, varied and teeming as it is, has been laboriously built up, and that many of the animals to be seen have been brought from elsewhere, or at least induced by artifice to come in and dwell. The exact opposite is the case, and the area is essentially the same as when I first took charge of it as a corner of the great Southern Game Reserve in January 1924, and marveled at the wealth and variety of its wildlife… And the beasts are the same as those I found there that long time ago. Some species are now rather more numerous, some rather less, for populations, particularly of migratory or partially migratory species, are subject to periodical downs.

Today, at the dawn of yet another decade and despite the immense changes that have taken place since Ritche’s time, his words still ring true. Nairobi National Park remains a sanctuary for wildlife of all species. Although nowhere in Kenya can be said to be “teeming” with wildlife — such is the impact of relentless human expansion across the country — Nairobi National Park remains a sanctuary for wildlife of all species. It is home to a thriving rhino population and a healthy buffalo population, boosted largely by the addition of some twenty orphaned buffalos hand-raised and reintegrated by David and Daphne all those years before. African wild dogs are no more, but otherwise a healthy predator population remains. Nairobi National Park is still a rare jewel in the crown of conservation efforts, not just in Kenya, but in the entire world. No other city can boast such an impressive wilderness within easy reach of its center, where visitors can spend a magical day viewing a microcosm of what used to reign a hundred years ago.

Nairobi National Park became my home when my father, David Sheldrick, was transferred from Tsavo to head the newly formed ‘Planning Unit’ for all of Kenya’s National Parks. He died in 1977, just six months after we moved to Nairobi, and the Trust was born in his memory later that year. My mother was granted permission to live in the park and continue David’s conservation vision, protecting Kenya's wild denizens and natural spaces.

Despite the loss she was grappling with, Daphne forged ahead. She was approached by the wildlife authority at the time, WCMD, to help raise two orphaned baby elephants that were being housed at the Nairobi National Park headquarters. She was the right person for the job, given her unique experience with the species from her Tsavo days. During their fragile infancy, calves require milk every three hours, so she spent much of her time travelling to the National Park headquarters throughout the day and night to feed her little charges.

When yet another orphaned elephant arrived in 1986, Daphne insisted that this time it be raised closer to her. And so it was that a little elephant called Olmeg arrived at our home within Nairobi National Park and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Nursery was born. It is true to say that the elephants very much found us. There was no premeditated idea of setting up an orphanage, but as new rescued orphans kept coming, the Nursery had to grow to accommodate their needs. Slowly, it morphed into what it is today: a thriving home for as many as 36 baby elephants at a time. Raising them just behind our home means that we are available, at all times, to tackle the inevitable challenges that arise — because when it comes to raising orphaned elephants, you soon discover that you are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

After spending my childhood in Tsavo, Nairobi is the place I have called home since I was 14 years old. I feel blessed to still be lulled to sleep by the rumbles of baby elephants and the far off calls of the hyena, or the roar of lions drifting on southerly winds, sounds so synonymous with the wild places of East Africa. Nairobi National Park is an irreplaceable asset to Kenya, so unique in its location yet so abundant in its fauna and flora.

As usual, my mother’s words so eloquently bring this remarkable place to life:

The reason for such a variety of animal life in this tiny Park only 44 square miles in extent is that it includes many different habitats, each harboring its own typical fauna. The Park comprises open plains, broken bush, some real forest, a permanent river with fringe thickets, luggas, long grass, short grass, flat land and foothills, so a multitude of forms can live in close proximity to one another. On the open plains, grasslands alternate with acacia dominated savannah, whilst the Mbagathi River cuts deep gorges of considerable depth and varying width as it winds its way through. The slopes of the gorges that are not sheer rock provide dense cover for many shyer creatures. Where is a good depth of soil, large wild figs with spreading crowns, attaining a height of 80 to 100 feet, are plentiful. In areas where the water table is closer to the surface, such as at the Hippo Pools, yellow fever trees form beautiful stands, conspicuous with their sulphur yellow trunks and pale foliage. Stunted whistling thorns predominate in the shallower soils of the open windswept plains, providing food for browsing species such as giraffe and rhino. On the black cotton soils, the highly nutritious “oat grass” (Themeda triandra) dominates amongst a wide variety of other grasses and legumes. Dry luggas and riverbeds afford places preferred by lions, and the forest, which is confined to more broken country on higher ground, shelters forest species such as bushbuck, suni, and monkeys. The forest is, in fact, the southern fringe of what used to be the extensive Langata Forest and is comprised of Crotons, Muhugus, Cape Chestnuts, and other indigenous species. But because the soil in the section that is in the Park is shallow, the tree growth on the whole does not reach the height of the forest proper. Nevertheless, its air conditioning role is irreplaceable.

For me, Nairobi National Park is both a nod to the past and a hopeful look forward to the future. Yes, it is just a microcosm of what it was a century ago, when it was young and unspoilt land. But thanks to diligent efforts, it remains a bastion of conservation. Although no elephant herds roam wild in the park — they haven’t for some time — the park is still home to the African elephant thanks to our Nursery. It is here that orphaned calves who have lost everything find a family and a future once more. It is a sanctuary where these babies can heal until they are ready to take the next step in their reintegration journey back to the wild. It is a remarkable place indeed.

Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.

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