The origins of the Orphans' Project begin with the orphaned animals Daphne and David hand-raised from the 1950's.
As Warden of Tsavo East National Park, David Sheldrick’s work brought him into close proximity with wild species and orphaned animals, offering the opportunity for Daphne and David to study elephant behaviour and understand both the physical and psychological needs of orphaned elephants.
Abandoned by his mother in 1954, Samson survived two nights alone in the wild before tourists alerted David Sheldrick, at the time Warden of Tsavo National Park, to his plight. With little practical experience in rescuing elephants, the rescue did not go as planned and it took eight men to finally subdue the little elephant who, despite being extremely emaciated, had lots of fight left in him, earning the name ‘Samson’. Through observing Samson, David learnt and collected information on elephant communication, the nature of their physiology – for instance, how long it took an orange to pass through the digestive tract, the amount of vegetation consumed in a day and the amazing dexterity of an elephants’ trunk.
Arriving in the care of David Sheldrick shortly after Samson, from the outset Fatuma confirmed the maternal nature and caring instincts of female elephants irrespective of their age. In fact, Fatuma nurtured a strange assortment of orphans of different species, all smaller and younger than herself including a mischievous bush-pig named Piglet!
Many orphaned wild animals came into David and Daphne's care during this time, including more elephant orphans.
Born in Samburu in 1958, Eleanor was orphaned when she was just two years old and named after Lady Eleanor Renison, the wife of the then Governor of Kenya who was in the party that found and saved her. Eleanor spent the first year following her rescue under the supervision of the late Bill Woodley, then Warden of the Mountain Parks, and was later transferred to David and Daphne in Tsavo to join orphans Samson and Fatuma.
Unlike Samson who joined wild elephant herds in the mid 1960's, Eleanor chose to remain behind as the self-appointed matriarch of the Tsavo herd which comprised of various orphaned animals including Kanderi, Aruba and Raru. Eleanor shared with Daphne a great deal of heartbreak during the years of trial and error when Daphne battled to unlock the mystery of how to raise milk dependent infant elephants
Rampant poaching of elephants, for their ivory, continued in the 1970’s leaving behind hundreds of orphans, many of them milk dependent. Until this point, however, no milk dependent infant had survived infancy as the composition of suitable milk fats had not yet been discovered.
Also known as ‘Shmetty’, Aisha arrived in the care of Daphne and David in 1974. A tiny calf who had fallen down a disused well in Marsabit, Northern Kenya, she was just days old and completely milk dependent. Despite a suitable formula not yet known or available, nonetheless, Daphne persevered and, after trialing a formula that contained coconut fats, found success. By guiding Aisha through her fragile first months, Daphne learned that an orphaned infant needs constant care and stimulation but, most importantly, this must be a role that is shared equally among several persons.
Very sadly, this last lesson was learned too late after Daphne traveled across the country for her daughter’s wedding, leaving Aisha in the care of a ‘surrogate’ mother. In the week that Daphne was absent, Aisha sank into a deep depression and became desperately ill, passing away when Daphne returned. Through caring for Aisha, Daphne learned that many of the psychological traits of elephants were similar to humans and that the replication of a ‘family’, as opposed to one main carer, was vital if an orphan was to thrive.
An orphan of drought, Sobo was rescued after she was found standing forlornly beside her dead mother in the burning heat, desperately drawing reserves of water from her stomach to spray over her body. When she was four-years-old, in a stroke of luck, she miraculously reunited with her former herd at a watering hole, proving the old proverb true that ‘an elephant never forgets’.
As the world slowly woke up to the devastating impact of the ivory poaching crisis, the Trust was busy hand-raising its first orphans as an organisation, soon building our very first orphan stockade.
Arriving in our care in 1987 aged just two weeks old, Olmeg was a suspected poaching orphan. At such a young age, he needed round-the-clock care and it soon transpired at hand-raising him in the Sheldrick family home was not a suitable option! Olmeg’s arrival therefore heralded the building of the very first orphan stockade, enabling Daphne and her small team of keepers to offer the constant care he needed.
Olmeg also revealed the emotional awareness of elephants and their capacity for benevolence but also jealously! This was demonstrated during Olmeg’s weaning process when he threw regular tantrums believing his was receiving less milk than his orphan friends.
Dika was orphaned whilst his family were migrating from Tsavo West National Park to Tsavo East in 1988. During their journey, his herd ran into a hail of gunfire from armed Somali poachers which left his mother dead and her orphaned calf extremely traumatised. The tragedy that befell his herd, an example of the wholesale slaughter facing elephants at the time, was mirrored in the demeanor of the calf we named Dika. A long grieving period ensued where he isolated himself from the orphan herd, standing alone and refusing to play, revealing the importance of an orphans' recovery period.
Very gradually he began to heal psychologically, and a small sparkle came back into his soft brown eyes. The day he joined the others in playing and taking an interest in his new surroundings was cause for a huge and happy celebration within our Nairobi Nursery! Slowly, his personality began to shine through, and he became transformed into a wonderful and very special little elephant, gentle and very caring of his peers, and extremely affectionate towards his carers.
Once Dika was two years old he was transferred to Tsavo along with other Nursery orphans of the same age. Here he was embraced by the famous elephant Matriarch Eleanor and began the gradual process of reintegration back into the elephant community that yielded him in the first place. As he grew older, as is the way of young elephant males, he chose to spend time away in the company wild male companions.
The Trust is very proud to have successfully, saved, reared and returned this elephant to his “people”, and rewarded by his enduring courtesy and love.
With the elephant Nursery now firmly established within Nairobi National Park more and more orphans came into our care as a result of poaching and human-wildlife conflict.
Mpenzi was rescued close to the Tsavo East National Park Headquarters at Voi in May 1993 aged approximately eight months old. She was discovered dehydrated and weak, obviously having been without mother’s milk for a long time. The dependent Voi orphans were taken to her location and they immediately surrounded her and affectionately took her under their wing as they walked her back to the Voi Stockades as part of their group, as if understanding her loneliness. She took to her milk bottle instantly, having taken her cue from the others, and was fussed over and mothered by Malaika, the oldest orphans at the time, who adopted her.
Mpenzi thrived with our Voi dependent orphans group for until almost two years before Eleanor coaxed her away from Malaika to lead a more independent life with her group. While she has lived an independent life from a young age, she returned back to stockades in the company of Eleanor in the early days and later, with her friend Catherine. More recently, she has been sighted with wild-living orphan Lissa. To date Mpenzi has given birth to two wild born babies, that we know of, with her first born very tragically killed by lions just below Voi Safari Lodge.
Emily was rescued from a pit latrine in Tsavo West but the overpowering scent that covered her once she was hauled to safety prevented her mother from recognising her calf and she was rejected by the herd. It took Emily four months to recover physically and psychologically from this terrible ordeal but during her two years at the Nairobi Nursery, she revealed her nurturing and caring nature. Once through the critical early years at the Nursery, she joined the herd of older orphaned elephants at the Voi Reintegration Unit in Tsavo East National Park where she was one of the stars of the BBC Series 'Elephant Diaries'.
After several years at Voi, Emily reintegrated back into the wild but maintained strong bonds with her former carers and regularly returned to the Voi Reintegration Unit, where she played an important role in aiding the reintegration journey of many dependent orphans. Today, she is the matriarch of a large herd of wild-living female orphans and her success at leading her herd, through the good times and the bad, is testament to her successful reintegration and wise character. Most recently she successfully guided her herd to safer greener pastures during the terrible drought of 2018 that gripped the southern region of Tsavo East, a drought that ravaged the wild elephant population with as many as 380 wild elephants dying through lack of food.
Emily gave birth to her first calf named Eve in 2008, followed by a second wild-born baby called Emma who was, astonishingly, born in full view of the Keepers at the Voi Stockades.