The Power of Love

Published on the 7th of December, 2023

Being a parent is among the most challenging yet rewarding endeavours a human can undertake. The same applies for rearing orphaned elephants — though in many ways, one might argue that its complexities are compounded!

In this month’s Field Notes, I wanted to delve into the ‘secret ingredient’ that it takes to successfully raise these extraordinary, complicated little creatures.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Power of Love

“Just like a human child, a baby elephant captures your heart entirely — so utterly dependent and incredibly intelligent. Although a baby elephant duplicates humans in terms of age, they are certainly much more advanced than the human equivalent in early infancy and much more responsible and wiser in childhood and adolescence.”
– Daphne Sheldrick

Daphne and Aisha, one of the first infant orphans to come into her care

As someone who had the unique experience of growing up with orphaned elephants as my peers, then raising them alongside my own children, I can attest to the truth of Daphne’s words. Elephants are indeed strikingly similar to ourselves. Like us, they have distinct and dynamic personalities. They feel emotions deeply and have clever, capable brains that are always whirring. Each one is completely unique and utterly enchanting.

Me, Daphne, and David, with our early orphan family in Tsavo

Through this lens, one must marvel at my mother’s perseverance. No one had yet successfully raised an orphaned infant African elephant. Daphne and David quickly discovered just how complex and sensitive these little creatures are. While orphans rescued at an older age thrived, infants were a cipher that were difficult to decode.

Developing the proper milk formula for an infant orphan elephant was a journey of its own… but that is a story for another day. Of equal — or, I would argue, greater — importance was understanding the husbandry needed to successfully help these young elephants navigate the darkest chapter of their lives.

Daphne and Olmeg

Daphne realised that infant orphaned elephants didn’t just need the essentials. Shelter, sustenance, veterinary care — all these things were vital, but their psychological well-being hinged on much deeper, more nuanced care.

A telling anecdote about Olmeg, the very first orphaned elephant Daphne raised at our Nairobi Nursery, illustrates this:

There was nothing for it but to relegate Baron the rooster and his wives to a box in the kitchen, so that Olmeg could occupy the chicken house. This was a disaster — Olmeg bellowed constantly, clearly feeling claustrophobic, until we could stand it no longer and had to let him out. We tried exercising him around the car park for half an hour or so at a time in order to tire him out, but this didn't work either, for whenever we put him back the bellowing began all over again, added to which he clearly enjoyed the nocturnal outings.

In the end, Jill [my older sister] suggested Olmeg share her bedroom. We replaced the carpet on her bedroom floor with a bed of hay and here the little elephant eventually settled down to sleep, after several attempts to climb on to Jill's bed.

As a steady succession of new rescues came into our care, it also became clear that raising infant orphaned elephants wasn’t a one-person job. It was critical that orphans didn’t become overly dependent on any single individual — and equally, the task was too great for one person to shoulder alone. As our orphan herd grew, the role of Keepers became increasingly important. Today, we have more than 50 Keepers working across our five orphan units.

Instead of recruiting Keepers from one specific tribe or locality, we hire from across Kenya. Our logic is that each person, with their diverse background, opens a whole new dimension to the role. This strategy has the added bonus of fostering conservation awareness across the country. Keepers become vital ambassadors within their own communities. Over the years, many orphans have been saved by ordinary people who developed empathy for elephants through a Keeper who is a father, uncle, friend, or neighbour.

People are always curious what qualifications we look for in a Keeper. It’s not anything one would find on a resume. While many of our Keepers have shambas or raise livestock back home, none have worked professionally with elephants before. However, all experiences and qualifications melt away when confronted with our orphan herd.

Elephants have a way of distilling a person to their purest form. Our orphans are quick to identify the ‘X factor’ that makes an excellent Keeper, which is why we ultimately put recruitment in their capable hands. New candidates join the orphan herd on a trial basis, and if they are embraced by the elephants, they are hired as a full-time Keeper.

We call it the ‘X factor’, but to assign an all-encompassing human trait, it would be empathy. People who succeed with orphaned elephants are pure of heart, graced with a quiet confidence and unfaltering dedication.

Peter, an extraordinarily gifted Keeper

People who possess these qualities are one in a million — yet, miraculously, they continue to find their way into our orbit, usually through the most unexpected routes. Mishak, who has been with us for more than three decades, has a mystical ability to convince orphans who have all but given up to return to the land of the living. He was a night watchman before we hired him — and from these humble beginnings, one of our most gifted Keepers emerged.

Mishak, who has a magical way with elephants

Peter, another of our longest serving Keepers, was employed as a construction worker in Nairobi when he was introduced to the Trust. He became enchanted by the baby elephants and applied for the role. He is an incredibly talented Keeper who has been on almost all of our orphan rescues. Joseph, a rising star on our team, started as an anti-poaching ranger. Now, he is taking on some of our most challenging orphan cases. These men are just three among many, many examples of extraordinary talent on our team.

Joseph, a young Keeper with great talent

Keepers play the role of caregiver and healer. As Daphne recognised all those years ago, an orphan’s psychological state is even more important than any physical injuries they must overcome. It is essential to have a comprehensive understanding of their rescue story, as this helps unlock what they need to move forward.

Orphans who experienced pain and suffering often exhibit behaviour that mirrors post-traumatic stress syndrome in humans. Healing the psychological effects of such stress is imperative — and no small task. It takes time, patience, and the all-important empathy. Some orphans accept their new family from the outset, others take weeks before beginning to thaw, still others always remain a bit standoffish. We are there to help every orphan overcome their personal traumas, without trying to reshape their personalities.

Given this weighty undertaking, one might mistakenly assume that our Nurseries are rather sombre places. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Our goal is to create a joy-filled cocoon for each orphan — a secure, stress-free environment where they feel loved, supported, and safe.

This strategy, in its beautiful simplicity, is transformative. There is nothing better than witnessing an orphan who arrives furtive and withdrawn begin to shed their shell. It’s a transformation that begins within, but spreads outwardly: dull eyes begin to sparkle, once-limp ears extend like butterfly wings, frightened mock-charges give way to a trunk tentatively endended in greeting.

Kerrio during her early days at the Nursery, with Sammy and Kindani

I often reflect upon the metamorphosis of Kerrio, who came to us physically paralysed and physiologically damaged. Day and night, her Keepers painstakingly earned her trust. With this trust came transformation. As Kerrio’s mental state improved, her strength returned. The little elephant who we thought might never walk properly again came back to life. A few laboured steps gave way to short forays around the compound, then longer journeys to join the rest of the orphans. Now Kerrio is the matriarch of our Nursery herd — a remarkable female with an enormous capacity to love, for both her orphan ‘kids’ and her Keeper ‘parents’.

There are so many stories like Kerrio’s unfolding, across all our orphan units. The common thread — the secret ingredient, if you will — that carries them through their darkest days, helping them blossom into happy, well-adjusted elephants, is love.

As my mother used to say, animals weave their way into one's heart so completely. It is only fitting, then, that we raise them with our whole hearts. This emotional investment is reciprocated — for the love of an elephant lasts a lifetime. I am reminded of this every time an ex-orphan returns ‘home’ to proudly debut their newly born baby to the men who raised her. (A happy occasion that has occurred twice this week alone — stay tuned for more news on our extended family’s latest additions!)

When you have earned the love of an elephant, they too keep you in their hearts forever.

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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