The Nursery's Cast of Characters

Published on the 29th of October, 2020

It is humbling indeed to earn the trust of wildlife. Significant work goes into the relationships our Nursery Keepers build with the orphans, relationships that will guide them through their most vulnerable days and help them one day reclaim their place in the wild.

The trust we have earned among the creatures of Nairobi National Park, however, is all through osmosis. Animals have a remarkable ability to understand the nature of another being. They get this by simply observing our daily actions, seeing not only how we help the vulnerable orphans who we raise, but also how we respect the wild creatures who call its environs home. After all, the same men who wake up every three hours to feed baby elephants warm bottles of milk are equally happy to share their breakfast with a motley — and entirely wild — crew of hangers-on.

This month, join me as I delve into the cast of characters in our orbit at the Nursery.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Nursery's Cast of Characters

As the first glimmers of sunlight peek above the horizon, illuminating Nairobi National Park in a golden glow, many of the orphaned elephants are growing restless. Trundling to their feet, each makes a beeline for the elevated bunk in the corner of their nighttime quarters. Reaching up with their tiny trunk, they tug the blanket off their sleeping Keeper and tell them it’s time to start the day.

The baby elephants are always eager to start the day

When the orphans get wind of the fact that their neighbours are also awake, lots of rumbling commences. Perhaps they are catching up about the sounds and sights of the previous evening, or plotting for the day ahead. The first order of the day is always the morning milk feeding. Two bottles, still warm from the mixing area, are delivered to each stable and stockade. The babies slurp down their milk in record time, each enjoying a formula tailored to their age and needs.

The morning milk feed marks the first of many bottles the orphans will have throughout the day

The youngest orphans are the first to emerge from their stables, striped blankets still swaddled around their round bellies. This is when their older friends grow especially restless, eager to join the fray and coddle their little charges. Once everyone is out of their stockades, they greet each other with great fanfare, as if it has been ages — instead of mere hours — since they were last together. Most mornings, they swing by Maxwell’s stockade, tickling the rhino with their trunks as he stands in a stupor or, if everyone is feeling more energetic, racing along the fenceline of his enclosure.

The Nursery herd spends most of their waking hours exploring Nairobi National Park

From there, it’s time for the Nursery herd to head out into Nairobi National Park, where the day unfolds organically. Sometimes, the elephants decide where they want to go; others, the Keepers lead the way, drawing from a number of beats they have memorised. This variety is important. Not only does it keep them stimulated — essential for the well-being of any baby elephant — but it also ensures that they don’t over-browse any one area.

The Keepers help the orphans discover the best shrubs to eat, just as their mothers would have done in the wild

The tone of the day often depends upon the season. While we ensure the orphans always have ample nutrition through milk bottles and fresh cut greens, elephants are intrinsically wired this way. During the dry season, the orphans focus their attentions on finding ample browse. They spend hours at it, studiously tearing bark off branches or foraging for greens. The wet season, however, is all about play. Surrounded by a buffet of vegetation, they grow delightfully plump, splashing around in mud slicks and sparkling freshwater streams.

Nairobi National Park is home to a spectacular array of wildlife

Wild encounters always loom large in the orphans’ days and, for me, this is the really remarkable thing about the whole setup. While elephants are at the heart of the Nursery, wild herds no longer roam in Nairobi National Park. However, it is home to some of Kenya’s most iconic species. Deep within the park, beyond the Nursery herd’s patch, hippos bob in the dams and lions stalk across the open plains. Rhinos — a thriving population, including a number of orphans we raised and reintegrated back into the Park — skirt among the bush, many with tiny calves underfoot.

Impalas — one of my mother's favorites — are among the many wild creatures in our orbit

On their daily beat, our orphans come across all sorts of creatures, from towering giraffes to graceful herds of impala. Baby elephants can be quite dramatic, and when these encounters surprise them, hysteria ensues. The Keepers often find the whole herd charging to their sides, trumpeting at the top of their lungs, only to discover that all the fuss was over something as innocuous as a tortoise ambling across their path or a chameleon accidentally dislodged while they reached into the trees.

The "ever-hopefuls" can usually be found lingering outside the canteen

For more than four decades, the creatures of Nairobi National Park have observed our orphans interacting with their human families. This instills enormous trust among the wild animals. Tree hyrax scurry around the leafy canopies, raising their pudgy babies in the branches above our offices. Birds flit through the stables, stopping for a drink and a dip in the birdbaths. A coterie of warthogs — who Daphne aptly nicknamed the “ever-hopefuls” — wait expectantly around the canteen. They know we churn out three meals a day and that they can count on a handout of tasty ugali if they get their timing right. White-tailed mongoose are also clued into the handout situation, so they duly skulk about in the evenings. Beyond Daphne’s veranda, all sorts of creatures make use of the orphans’ mud bath and the waterhole. A buffalo named Helmut and his one-horned sidekick, Horatio, have become a fixture over the years.

As the sun sets, the orphans go to bed, listening to the nighttime sounds of the Park from the comfort of their stables

By the time the orphans head home for the evening, things are beginning to quiet down at the Nursery. The warthogs have retreated to their burrows, the birds are settled in their roosts, and the Keepers are bunked up in their little charges’ stables. As the sun sets, a new cast of characters will take centre stage. The air becomes alive with rhinos splashing in the mud bath under the cover of darkness, the distinctive call of the nightjar, even the distant chatter of spotted hyenas. The orphans themselves are oblivious to this, lulled to sleep by a warm bottle of milk and the muted hooting of the Verreaux's eagle-owl perched on the acacia branches above their stables. Tomorrow will be a new day, full of wild encounters and exciting adventures.

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 subscribe here.

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