The colourful array of blankets hanging on the trees, fences and stockades of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Nairobi Nursery are now a familiar symbol of the elephant orphanage. When washed and dried these comforting blankets are an elephant’s best friend.
In the wild, baby elephants are sheltered from the the wind, rain and sun by their loving and attentive elephant herd, from the cold of the night and cooled in the shadow of their mother from the harsh rays of the sun during the heat of the day. At a delicate age all infant elephants are extremely vulnerable to changing weather and temperature conditions and are highly susceptible to pneumonia, which claims many young elephant orphan’s lives.
Without their mother and their herd to protect them from nature’s unforgiving elements young orphaned elephants need extra special care from their human keepers at the Nairobi Nursery. To ensure each orphan’s health, comfort and well-being, the keepers are armed with a secret weapon; a soft and fluffy blanket. These multi-coloured swathes of fabric are not only used to keep the infant elephants warm on a cold night, but have many cunning uses.
When heavy rain clouds loom in the sky, the keepers have a bundle of raincoat-blankets at hand. Waterproof on the outside and fluffy on the inside, the keepers wrap the tailor-made coats snuggly around the younger orphan’s waists whilst carrying a big umbrella overhead when the rain becomes torrential.
The physical act of bottle feeding a new orphaned elephant is a tricky process and after years of trial and error it was Angela’s tent, which she and her friends would play in when she was young, that provided a solution. Olmeg at the time would simply not feed unless under the tent with his truck resting against the canvas. When infant elephants feed in the wild they caress their mother’s warm body with their trunk as they suckle. It provides a place for the trunk to rest too when raised to feed and this feels natural rather than suspended in thin air.
This comforting and loving habit has now been reconstructed at the Nursery by hanging one of the blankets in the very young orphan’s stockade, or between trees when out in the forest and this acts as the mother’s warm body, whilst a keeper stands behind the blanket offering a tempting bottle of milk secretly from underneath. This cunning manoeuver works a charm on the younger orphans who are hesitant to accept a bottle of milk.
Although a wonderful tool for raising infant elephants, some orphans become overly attached to their ‘blanky’. Just like a human child, the orphans fiddle, suck and play with their blankets, comforted by what it represents. Yet there must come a time when each orphan must understand they no longer need the comfort of a blanket, and are slowly and lovingly weaned off their attachment on the journey to become a mature elephant and part of a wild herd in Tsavo. With some this is a simple task, while others take months and it is a slow and painful process!