Nairobi Nursery - behind the scenes

Published on the 30th of January, 2021

The Nairobi Nursery is the first, formative step in an orphan’s journey back to the wild. It is the place where calves who have lost everything find family and a future once more.

There was no premeditated idea of setting up an orphanage; the elephants very much found us after the Trust was founded in 1977, in memory of David Sheldrick. Over the years, Daphne was called upon to help raise a number of orphaned elephant calves who came to the nearby Nairobi park headquarters. She was perfect for the job, situated within the Park and drawing from her extensive experience of raising elephant orphans while her husband, David Sheldrick, was the founding warden of Tsavo East National Park. However, caring for them off site proved to be a logistical challenge: During their infancy, baby elephants require enormous oversight, not to mention milk feedings every three hours. When yet another orphan was rescued in 1986, Daphne requested that he be raised at her home in the Nairobi National Park.

Nairobi Park consists of forest and open plains and has been home to our elephant Nursery since 1977

That is how a little elephant called Olmeg came to take up residence in Daphne’s home in Nairobi National Park — and with that, the Nursery was born within this most picturesque of Parks unique in its close proximity to the capital city . As new rescues continued to arrive, it had to grow to accommodate them and their needs. Over forty plus years, the Nursery metamorphosed into what it is today: a sanctuary for orphans of all shapes and sizes, able to house as many as 36 elephant calves at a time.

Days begin early at the Nursery. Long before the warm glow of dawn has arrived, the compound is already a hive of activity. There is milk to be mixed, tea to be brewed. In their nighttime quarters, the orphaned elephants begin to stir. The more impatient babies trundle over to the bunk bed in the corner of their stable, reaching up to unceremoniously tug the blanket off their sleeping Keeper. As soon as the orphans notice that their neighbors are also up, the Nursery comes alive with a series of rumbles and trumpets.

Already, our hardworking (and early-rising) team is busy preparing the morning feed, for both elephants and humans. While the cooks whip up a breakfast of tea and chapatis, the “ever-hopefuls” — a group of semi-tame warthogs — wait outside, eager for handouts. Meanwhile, the mixers are preparing the latest batch of milk for each orphan. This is a 24-hour role, rotated between the Keepers, as infant elephants must be fed every three hours. The mixer and his assistant deliver the morning two bottles of milk to each stable, placing them in the bucket that hangs outside. The babies enjoy specific formulas tailored to their age and needs, which they slurp down in record time.

The 9.00 am milk feed finds the elephants where ever they are at the time.

The 'Everhopefulls' are wild warthogs that have learnt hanging out with elephants and their Keepers brings its fair share of tasty perks

With the morning feeding out of the way, it is time to officially start the day. The youngest babies are the first to emerge from their stables, still bundled in their colorful blankets to ward off the morning chill. Some orphans have to be coaxed out of their rooms — especially when it’s rainy or a bit cold — while others can hardly wait to be reunited with their friends. Most mornings, everyone convenes by Maxwell’s gate. They caress the rhino with their trunk or, if they are feeling particularly invigorated, race him along the fenceline of his enclosure.

Blind black rhino Maxwell is a permanent fixture at the Nursery

fresh beds of hay are laid daily in the stables for cosy comfort

The morning is spent out and about in Nairobi National Park. Baby elephants thrive off constant stimulation, so we ensure that no two days are alike. Occasionally, one of the orphans takes the lead and chooses a route. Usually, the Keepers suggest a direction, guiding their little charges to a bountiful patch of greens or a sparkling spring in the forest.

The Nursery is located in a forested corner of Nairobi National Park, which opens up to vast plains scattered with acacia trees and dissected by rivers. During the rains, there is a muddy patch every few hundred yards, providing tantalising on-demand wallows for our charges. The undergrowth can become particularly thick, and it can be quite a task to keep sight of all the little elephants in these conditions. This is the Keepers’ number one priority, as there are some real dangers lurking deeper in the park, if a calf was to wander too far.

Here at the Nursery an incredible bond built on love and trust is forged between the babies and the men who save and nurture them

Under the watchful eye of their Keepers the orphans spend their days deep in the Park

For elephants of all ages, browsing dominates the day. We provide every orphan with abundant nutrition through milk bottles and freshly cut greens, but they are still wired to seek out tasty roots and shoots in the forest. They turn it into an artform, diligently stripping bark off branches or foraging for greens. There is a bit of a learning curve to this, so Keepers lend newcomers a helping hand, showing them which plants are best to eat.

While every day brings about new adventures, the 11 o’clock mud bath and milk feed remains a constant. We bring the orphans down in small groups, so the feeding unfolds in organized (instead of all-out) chaos. The elephants rush in as fast as their little legs will carry them, propelled by the promise of milk. The more enterprising individuals investigate the wheelbarrow holding the empty bottles, just in case there are any leftovers to be had.

Mud and dustbaths provide endless entertainment

The noon feeding time

From there, a blissful hour of wallowing, splashing, and sunning ensues. Some orphans dive headfirst into the mud, while others prefer a more dainty soil dusting. This is where we see some of the day’s greatest dramas unfold. Everyone feels freshly energized by their milk, and they funnel that energy into robust wrestling matches and spirited games.

The rest of the day is more sedate. Afternoons can get very hot in Nairobi, so the orphans retreat to the forest, where they meander under the shade of the trees. The Nursery is located in the heart of Nairobi National Park, so they come into contact with all manner of wildlife during their daily explorations. Giraffes feed off the acacias on the plains below, curiously observing the line of marching elephants. Impalas, who have grown up seeing these scenes unfold day after day, barely blink an eye when the herd crosses their path. and occasionally, they even come across black rhinos — The more threatening creatures, such as lions and leopards, keep a wide berth, deterred by the Keepers’ presence. That doesn’t stop the orphans from causing a great stir about even the most innocuous wildlife encounters. Something as harmless as a chameleon tumbling from the branches is enough to cause all-out hysteria among the Nursery herd!

The Park is home to a diverse array of species

By 5 o’clock, it is time to head home for the evening. While the orphans have been out in the forest, the base team has been busy making sure that everything is shipshape for their arrival. They have stripped each bedroom, stocking it with a fresh layer of hay, a bundle of cut greens, and two bottles of warm milk. Freshly laundered blankets sit neatly folded over stable doors, ready to be tied around their little charges’ bellies.

The orphans know which room is theirs and make a beeline for it, eager to settle down for the evening. While the Reintegration Units have communal sleeping arrangements, the Nursery orphans have individual stockades. Baby elephants are very fragile and, in the wild, they sleep protectively cocooned by their herd. We replicate that experience through cozy, hay-lined quarters. Of course, they never sleep alone: A Keeper bunks up with each baby, providing company, care, and milk feedings throughout the night. They are often called upon to offer up comfort when thunder and rain batters the stable roofs, giving the babies a reassuring cuddle.

Eagerly the babies head home to their individual bedrooms for the night

Tucked in for the night

New rescues usually come to us in poor condition. During these fraught early weeks, they require a very hands-on approach if the baby is to survive. Enclosed stables allow us to provide vigilant oversight to the smallest and most vulnerable members of our orphan herd. As they grow older, however, they become claustrophobic in closed stables. That is why we also have larger, open stockades, which allow the bigger elephants to sleep protected under the stars.

As dusk falls, a sense of tranquility settles over the Nursery. The orphans’ bellies rise and fall in tune to the hooting lullaby of the Verreaux's eagle-owl perched outside. When they are grown, these very elephants will spend their nights on the plains of Tsavo, roaming beneath the star-studded sky. For now, however, they drift off to sleep under the watchful eyes of their Keepers — the surrogate family who will be by their side every step of the way, until they are ready to reclaim their place in the wild.

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