A Place of Beginnings — The Nairobi Nursery

Published on the 25th of January, 2024

At the moment, our Nairobi Nursery is home to 21 orphaned elephants and two orphaned rhinos. Given how many animals have found their future through our Nairobi Nursery, it might surprise you to know that there was no premeditated plan to set up an orphanage. Instead, the elephants very much found us.

In 1977, my mother, Daphne Sheldrick, established Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to continue the conservation legacy of my late father, David Sheldrick. From her base in Nairobi National Park, she was often called upon to help raise infant orphaned elephants who were brought to the nearby park headquarters. Daphne was uniquely suited to the challenge, given her extensive experience raising orphaned elephants during David’s wardenship of Tsavo East National Park.

In their infancy, orphaned elephants require minute-by-minute oversight. Initially, Daphne travelled between her home and park headquarters, but given how demanding her young charges were, she was constantly shuttling to and fro. As more rescues continued to arrive, the only solution was to create a base where she could raise them onsite.

And that is how a little elephant named Olmeg became the first official resident of what is now our Nairobi Nursery. Over the years, the Nursery has grown and evolved to accommodate our ever-growing orphan herd. This month, join me in a behind-the-scenes tour of the Nursery — the place where it all began for Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and where it all begins for most of our new rescues.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Nairobi Nursery — A Place of Beginnings

Long before the sun’s first rays have greeted the horizon, the Nairobi Nursery is already whirring with activity. Clinks and clanks emerge from the milk mixing areas, as Keepers carefully measure out the formulas for the morning’s first bottle feed. A crackling fire is lit in the canteen, from which the smell of chapatis and freshly brewed chai wafts across the compound.

The orphans typically wake up in a domino effect. Drowsy rumbles escalate into a chorus of chatter, as the orphans rise, one after the other, and catch up with their neighbours. Some of the more impatient babies trundle over to the bunk in the corner of their bedroom, reaching their trunk to unceremoniously tug the blanket off their Keeper. Others sleep on, relishing every last minute of shut-eye.

Like magic, two milk bottles are delivered outside each orphan’s stable or stockade promptly at 6 o’clock. Once everyone’s belly is full, the day can officially begin. The youngest elephants are the first to emerge from their stables. Swaddled in their colourful blankets, which ward off the morning chill, they relish this brief time in which they rule the Nursery. Some saunter over to say hello to Maxwell the rhino, while others browse on every errand shrub and branch with great importance.

The pint-sized reign is broken as the rest of the orphan herd is let out of their stables. The mini matriarchs cluster around the blanket babies, while the junior bulls swagger around with great importance. Mzinga, our resident rhino whisperer, can usually be found at Maxwell’s gate, caressing the rhino with her trunk. Shujaa, who can never resist an opportunity to go off-piste, trundles atop the visitor platform so he can access the untapped bounties of greens.

Raha the black rhino operates on her own schedule. She enjoys a later lie-in, resting until the sun has fully revealed itself. Clad in her own thick blanket, she follows her Keepers into the forest, usually accompanied by an animated series of squeaks and snorts. Rhinos are a solitary species, so Raha follows her own beat during the day. Rhinos can also be quite ornery, so her Keepers’ best-laid plans are often waylaid by the headstrong young girl!

The orphans’ waking hours are spent exploring Nairobi National Park. No two days are alike, which is only fitting for a highly intelligent species that thrives off constant stimulation. Typically, the Keepers suggest a direction, guiding the herd towards a new freshwater mud wallow or a verdant patch of greens.

These adventures proceed, rain or shine. The Keepers are fully kitted out for any sort of weather, while the orphans, being wild animals, must get used to all nature’s whims. The youngest orphans are girded against the elements in their blankets, and on very rainy days, they remain in the shelter of their stables until the skies clear up. (Meanwhile, in particularly inclement weather, some enterprising older orphans try to work their way beneath a Keeper’s umbrella!)

As the orphans embark upon their day, the rest of the compound also comes to life. The Nairobi Nursery serves as the headquarters for all our northern units. The on-site workshop manages vehicle maintenance and fabrication for our teams, from Meru to Mount Kenya to the Rift Valley. The whir of welders and hum of engines fills the air, as the team conducts repairs and upgrades.

The orphans receive their 9 o’clock milk feed in the forest, while the 11 o’clock meal unfolds down at the mud bath. This coincides with our daily public visit, in which guests are invited to observe the orphans during their midday meal and mud bath. Nursery Head Keeper Edwin or his deputy narrates the hour, providing context about each orphan’s rescue story and an overview of our work in the field. It is one of our greatest privileges to welcome people from all over the world to the Nursery, meeting donors and spreading our conservation mission.

During the Nursery stage, most orphans are fed two bottles of milk, every three hours, while the youngest are fed on-demand. Each baby enjoys a specific formula that is tailored to their age and nutritional needs. Milk mixing is a 24-hour role, rotated between the Keepers, in order to ensure that every feeding unfolds like clockwork. The orphans are taskmasters in this department: They are prompt timekeepers and know exactly when the next feeding is due. If milk bottles arrive even a minute late, they are quick to lodge their complaints!

For every milk feed, the orphans are brought down in small groups. These are usually organised by age, although some special cases earn themselves a place in a different group. (Muridjo, our fabulously contrarian girl, springs to mind — she started bullying her peers during milk feeds, so she was upgraded to an older group, who semi-effectively keep her in line.)

The elephants dash as fast as their stout legs will carry them, propelled by the promise of milk. The more resourceful individuals are quick to orchestrate milk heists, either targeting the wheelbarrow that holds all the empty bottles or honing in on a smaller orphan who has yet to finish their share. The Keepers must be on high alert in order to thwart their machinations!

During the dry season, the orphans can rely on the mud bath outside Daphne’s house for all their wallowing. But the rains bring about all manner of impromptu delights, as puddles, mud slicks, and pools spring up throughout the forest. Some orphans reliably dive headfirst into any body of water, while others prefer a dainty soil dusting on the edges. Often, it is the bulls with the greatest bravado who are most hesitant — it never ceases to entertain, watching the big elephants steel themselves on the edge of the smallest pools, waiting determinedly for their friends to enter uncharted waters first.

People always marvel at the tidiness of our compounds. This is a top priority — but keeping everything shipshape takes a lot of effort. While one team of Keepers chaperones the orphans in the forest, another cleans the stables and stockades, cuts greens, washes blankets, and otherwise ensures everything is in order. Our groundskeepers — some of whom have been in the Trust’s employ from the very beginning — meticulously tend to the Nursery’s gardens and grounds. They know every shrub, flower, tree, and plant by heart.

Come 5 o’clock, the entire compound starts to wind down. While the hum of the workshop lulls, sizzles and snaps can be heard from the canteen, where the cook is preparing dinner for the staff. Meanwhile, the Keepers have been hard at work ensuring the orphans’ bedrooms are ready for bedtime. Every stable and stockade has been stripped and lined with a puffy layer of hay. They are stocked with bundles of freshly cut greens, which the orphans snack on throughout the night, and two bottles of milk wait outside each gate for the evening feed. Maxwell enjoys a bedtime treat of sliced pineapples, bananas, and watermelon, while Raha chomps in a circular fashion around her suspended bundles of greens.

Orphans know which bedroom is theirs and feel quite attached to it. (I will never forget the outrage of Bondeni, Kindani, and Kinyei when we dared to change their Nursery rooming arrangements!) The youngest babies tend to approach bedtime with great gusto. They dash home in a frenzy of flapping ears, pumping legs, and flailing trunks, making a beeline for their stables. When they outgrow their fragile infancy, orphans are moved into open-air stockades, which offer a touch more space and independence.

As the day draws to a close, the night is just beginning for our next shift. At the Nursery, each orphan is roomed with a dedicated Keeper, who provides care, company, and milk feedings through the night. This role requires vigilance, as the orphans must be carefully monitored during their fragile infancy. The rainy season has been a rather sleepless time for the poor night shift, as their little charges protest the sound of thunder and rain battering the stable roofs.

Raising an orphaned elephant or rhino is not the work of a few years, but the commitment of a lifetime. An orphan may remain in our care for upwards of a decade until they feel ready to reclaim their place in the wild, and even then, our field teams continue to look after them. In the wider narrative of an orphan’s life, the Nursery is but a brief stage. But there is something very special about the place where it all begins.

As I write this, 21 orphaned elephants are tucked into their Nursery bedrooms. In time, these little elephants will be giants of Tsavo, spending their night under the star-spangled skies of Kenya’s greatest wilderness. But for now, their full bellies rise and fall in tune with the nocturnal noises of Nairobi National Park beyond, watched over by their surrogate family.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

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