For elephants, the gift of a new calf brings unfettered joy to the whole herd — but for our orphans, it represents so much more.
Many of you, like me, were likely cheering the victories for elephants at CITES’ Conference of the Parties last month. There were many uncertainties coming into the meeting — Zimbabwe was preparing to export another group of captured elephants to zoos overseas, while Botswana sought permission to sell its stockpiled ivory — and we knew just how much was at stake for the species. That’s why we were elated by CITES’ decision to institute a near-total ban on the export of wild elephants and reject the proposal to sell stockpiled ivory. Every day, we see how important family is to elephants and, conversely, how much they grieve when they lose one of their own. Measures like the ones that CITES put into place will help keep more elephant families intact, and while our work to protect them is far from finished, it’s important to celebrate the wins.
Speaking of celebrations… On September 1, we welcomed baby Lili into the world! For elephants, the gift of a new calf brings unfettered joy to the whole herd — but for our orphans, it represents so much more. It’s the closing of one chapter and the start of another; it finally brings about full circle how things should be, living wild and free with their very own flesh and blood by their sides. Having a window into this special world of orphaned elephants and their offspring is what brings us the most joy of all.
This miracle of life is set to grow exponentially. Not only are our older orphan females going to continue to have multiple babies, but we have twenty females at our Voi Reintegration Unit alone who are on the cusp of breeding age, not to mention those at Ithumba and Umani. So, in a few years’ time, we will be enjoying a dramatic baby boom — one in which the number of wild grandkids born will hopefully exceed the number of elephants we have rehabilitated! This month, as we celebrate a brighter future for elephants like Lili, I’m feeling particularly awestruck by these orphans who have overcome the odds and embarked on the ultimate journey: motherhood.
– Angela Sheldrick
“A very special feeling flooded over me when I contemplated my orphans; the sort of feeling I knew David must have experienced a hundredfold when he contemplated the Park he helped create, Tsavo; a feeling of great achievement; a warm glow of pride; of deep satisfaction and contentment; a feeling of identity — almost even of creation, for by being instrumental in giving life to one animal, many others had a chance to live.”
These poignant words penned by Daphne perfectly sum up one of the greatest joys we could possibly experience: when we meet the next generation of elephants, born to the orphans we rescued, rehabilitated, and reintegrated back into the wild. The fact that they never forget us and that we remain an important part of their family, even once they’re fully immersed in their independent lives, is humbling indeed.
Indeed, many wild-living orphans return to our stockades right after giving birth, so we too can share in the joy of their newborn. These experiences bring us the sort of pride that only a parent or grandparent can feel when they gaze upon perfect fresh little lives, reflecting on all that has gone before and all that will come. We’ve followed them from their fraught early days at the Nursery, through the years of sleepless nights and long days, watching them graduate to our Reintegration Units and dipping their toes into the wild world, until they ultimately feel ready to transition from our care. When they start their own families in the wild, we know that we have fulfilled our promise to them.
Family is everything to African elephants. When one member of a herd gives birth, everyone shares equally the honor (and hassle!) of raising a calf. Seeing these dynamics unfold reaffirms just how traumatizing it must be for an orphan to lose its family, and the devastation wrought by poaching, human-wildlife conflict, climate change, and all the things we humans have a hand in. Our orphans are the lucky ones, rescued and retrieved from desperate beginnings. The fact that they are able to overcome the incredible traumas they faced, and grow up with such a capacity to love, is a testament to just how remarkable these gentle giants are.
It seems that every time one of our female orphans has a calf, she is eager to include her human family in the celebrations. Over the years, we have had the privilege of meeting 31 of these pint-sized miracles. Many of our orphans have had multiple babies and some are even grandparents by now. Such is the case with Lissa, who was rescued with a broken leg in 1988, obviously a victim of the poaching that was rampant in Tsavo at the time. While her life started with sorrow, that wasn’t to be her fate. She gave birth to her first calf, Lara, in 1999. Lali followed in 2002, then Lugard in 2007, Lazima in 2011, and Leo in 2016. Meeting Leo was a particularly special event; although she hadn’t visited us in three years, Lissa proudly ambled up to the Voi stockades to introduce the Keepers to her little boy. We also realized that her firstborn, Lara, had given birth to a tiny baby girl around the same time — making Lissa a grandmother! Although she is fully integrated in the wild herds of Tsavo, she always comes to us in moments of happiness or in times of need. When Lara was just a baby, she got tangled in a snare. Lissa knew exactly what to do and calmly brought her daughter to our stockades, where the Keepers were able to cut her free.
Voi is our first Unit, built back in the 1940s by my late father, David Sheldrick. It became the haven where he and Daphne successfully raised some of the first elephant orphans. If the stockade’s well-trod red earth could talk, it would tell the tales of many broken beginnings and healed hearts, of elephants who overcame enormous odds to eventually lead fulfilling wild lives once more. Emily, a very special matriarch who we raised through the Voi Reintegration Unit, is one such success story. When she was just a month old, she fell into a latrine. She emerged stinking of human feces, to the degree that her mother didn’t recognize her as an elephant, let alone her own calf, and flung her aside before running off in terror. This was a devastating blow for such a tiny baby, and for her first months in our care, Emily was a shell of an elephant. Emily, as so many who are rescued do, found solace in her fellow orphans — and once she recovered, she helped many other new arrivals overcome the trauma of being orphaned. She eventually graduated to Voi and in time, transitioned from our care. She had her firstborn within sight of the Voi stockades back in 2008, a perfect baby girl who we called Eve. Then, just before Christmas in 2014, Emily gave birth to her second calf (who we called Emma) within the grounds of our Voi Reintegration Unit, inviting the Keepers to watch this extraordinary event unfold and share in Emma’s first day on earth.
Our Ithumba Reintegration Unit has also seen plenty of babies born over the years. Head Keeper Benjamin has become an old hand at wrangling them, having played ‘midwife’ to nine now! There’s mischievous Nusu, born to Nasalot, whose mother was poached for her ivory. As a youngster, Nusu was obsessed with the water trough and could not be kept out of it during his early months. He loved nothing more than to scramble up its side and then dive headfirst under the water. This habit was distressing, particularly for his long-suffering mother, so Benjamin would wade in and haul out the little rascal so everyone could relax once more! Then there’s Wiva, the daughter of Wendi, who came to the Nursery the day she was born. Wendi has definitely emerged as one of our more wayward parents, with more interest in being a milk bar than a mother, so her friends stepped in to communally raise her baby. Wiva is a happy and rambunctious little calf, much loved by everyone, and it won’t be long before she has a sibling to dote on.
Our most recent miracle arrived on the first of this month, when Loijuk gave birth to baby Lili. Loijuk was a victim of the drought, rescued in 2006 in a hopelessly emaciated state. She blossomed in our care and proved herself to be a remarkably maternal elephant, always stepping in to look after her fellow orphans and, once she had transitioned to the wild, nannying her friends’ babies. So, we couldn’t be happier for her that she finally has the chance to start her own family and experience the joys of motherhood firsthand.
It’s true that elephants live in a matriarchal society, but we have also noticed what an important role bulls sometimes play in protecting newborn calves. Yetu and Mwende’s father, a handsome wild bull, still returns to check in on his family from time to time. He reappeared earlier this year with many of his big bull friends in tow, remaining in the area for two months during the dry season and hopefully siring more babies amidst our older female orphans.
For our still-dependent orphans, spending time with these wild-born babies is the ultimate treat. It’s not a given; the nannies decide if and when these encounters can happen, and they run a notoriously tight ship. These early interactions further lay the maternal foundations for our orphan girls, and each one seems to instinctively know the art of how to be a wonderful, nurturing, and attentive mother. Wendi, of course, may be the exception to the rule — but what she lacks in maternal tendencies she certainly makes up for in entertainment!
I remember a magical scene that we were blessed with in January 2018, when the super moon brought in more than a hundred elephants to our Ithumba stockades. Bathed in a heavenly blue glow, the whole area appeared otherworldly, as we shared in this remarkable convergence of orphans, wild elephants, and their offspring. In the center of them all, lying on her tummy with four babies splayed on top of her, was Wendi. They were clambering onto her, draping themselves over her, falling off her, only to start all over again. Wendi was perhaps the most enthusiastic participant, using her trunk to pull them up and push them down, obliging their baby games for well over an hour. It made me remember Wendi as the impossibly tiny orphan we had rescued 15 years ago, a calf who had lost everything, only to find hope and happiness once more. Scenes like this are pure magic; they show just how many lives you can impact by saving the life of just one elephant. We feel very lucky to share these little treasures, the next generation born to our orphans.
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 receive the email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with our staff, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.