The orphaned baby elephants always arrive at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Nairobi National Park Nursery deeply traumatized, often injured, suffering from shock and grief having lost their elephant mother and family, for to a baby elephant, its mother and family are life itself. The role of the Elephant Keepers that replace that lost mother and family is one of love and healing; of constant companionship, endless patience, heartfelt empathy and gentle guidance to impart reassurance and persuade the orphan to make the effort to try and live. Aside from this, there is the vital necessary husbandry which entails 3 hourly milk feeds 24 hours a day, constant contact with the calf, even sleeping with it throughout the night. It involves understanding and endless patience for a baby elephant will not feed unless its trunk feels comfortable as though resting against the mother’s body. A hung blanket, though not quite the same, must replace this essential need while delicate petal soft baby ears must be protected with sunblock and shade provided by an umbrella, for a little elephant would be sheltered by its mother’s body for the first year of life. Temperature has to be kept stable by covering the calf with a blanket when cold, and keeping it under shade when hot. It must be encouraged to play, its stools must be constantly checked for any early warning of life-threatening conditions that can cause dehydration and death. The skin needs lubrication to keep it supple and healthy and most importantly, a very careful check kept on the calf’s daily in-take of milk, each feed recorded in a book so that the day’s total is adequate to support life. Its physical appearance must be constantly monitored with any sign of “dullness” immediately reported, for elephant babies are essentially exceedingly fragile and can be fine one day, and dead the next. Then there is the long haul of replacing the lost elephant family until the calf if confident to take its place back where it rightly belongs – amongst the wild elephant community of a Protected Area large enough to offer it the space it needs for a quality of life when grown, and this can take upwards of l0 years.
Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick who has 50 years of hands-on practical experience of rearing orphaned elephants, plus an in-depth knowledge of animals generally, works very closely on a daily basis with all the Keepers in a supervisory role during the Nursery stage, monitoring every aspect of the animal’s welfare and in the process imparting valuable expertise from experience gained over a lifetime. It is the unique human/elephant bond that is the secret of our success for psychological scars must heal, and confidence be restored for an elephant to qualify for acceptance back into the wild herds. No wild Matriarch will be tolerant of one behaving un-naturally, unwilling to take on a problem child. The transition back into the wild system has to take place in the orphans’ own time, accomplished only when it feels ready to take this quantum leap, bearing in mind that each animal is an individual in its own right, and each one unique. Until this time it is the human Elephant Keepers that replace the orphans’ lost family and provide a safe anchor and caring presence to instill confidence.
As at January 2008 the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust had successfully reared over 80 orphaned elephants, 36 ex Nursery babies orphaned in early infancy having now been successfully rehabilitated back into the wild herds of Tsavo East National Park, and some of the older females having their own wild-born young. Kenya’s orphaned elephants, and what they have taught us about their sophisticated species as they grow up, things that would never otherwise have been known about the special bonds of family and friendship, the compassion and care of each other, plus their mysterious means of communication and instinctive “sixth sense” that we humans will never fully understand, has been notable and unmatched to date. The dedication, compassion and care of their Keepers is inspirational; an example to all others less privileged, and something which has rightly earned the esteem of all caring people worldwide. Kenya deserves to be proud of its orphaned elephants, and proud of the men who have sacrificed so much to care for them until grown, men who have been rewarded by something very special and quite unique – the specific lifelong love and gratitude of an elephant, for An Elephant Never Forgets.