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Being orphaned is a profoundly traumatic event, both physically and psychologically, and many orphans suffer from starvation, dehydration or injuries caused by predators or humans. Our rescue teams are equipped with milk, stretchers to carry the orphan and vital medicines, including drips, to offer immediate aid at the scene and during the rescue.
At our Nursery, based in Nairobi National Park, we offer a secure base and a loving environment to nurture these orphans at a time of greatest need and our human carers play a crucial role in helping the new arrivals through this difficult period. This can often include a period of deep grieving which can last months as orphans come to terms with the loss of their mother and family. In addition to the grieving process, orphans rescued under four months old can suffer during the teething process when their first molars erupt, triggering fever and diarrhoea. This can be life threatening, plunging the calf into rapid physical decline through dehydration; however our Keepers are always at hand to provide all the medical attention they need.
Our Keepers play a crucial role in supporting and nurturing the orphans as their lost mothers' would have done. They offer them unconditional love, emotional support and the learning experiences that each young elephant needs to grow, as they would have received from their absent mothers. The Keepers care for the orphans 24 hours a day and this includes sleeping with the orphans during the night in their individuals stockades on a rotational basis so they do not feel alone.
Every three hours, the orphans are fed bottles of milk, although those rescued at a very young age are initially fed on demand. Being extremely fragile, calves can only tolerate certain milk compositions and we use a specialist milk formula developed by our Founder, Daphne Sheldrick which is fortified with additional, nutritious ingredients. Like human children, baby elephants need toys and stimulation. Our carers also walk with the orphans in the bush during the day in varied surroundings with unlimited access to Nature's toys, watching over them at all times and protecting them with blankets when cold, rainwear when wet and sunscreen and an umbrella when it’s sunny to prevent their sensitive skin from burning. Our carers also play lots of games with the orphans to keep things light-hearted and are always there for a hug or with a finger to suckle.
Elephants live socially complex, family-oriented lives and every orphan has their own unique personality and characteristics. Our Keepers encourage natural social dynamics to play out among the babies in their newly formed herd all the while filling in when needed as a guiding presence, peace-makers and rule enforcers. Assisting our Keepers are the mini-matriarchs, older female orphans that naturally assume a nurturing role and help to ensure every member of the herd, especially the babies, are feeling happy and loved. As with any family, the well-being of the infants is what matters most and this highly-specialised and maternal care is absolutely critical to helping each orphan grow strong, both emotionally and physically.
The Voi and Ithumba are based in Tsavo East National Park whilst the Umani Springs Unit is based in the Kibwezi Forest and has been specially built for vulnerable orphans requiring a gentler environment. Each Unit is protected by the SWT’s De-Snaring Teams, operated in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, and are based in areas that are home to wild elephant populations and have the space and environment the orphans need to successfully return back to the wild. At our Reintegration Units, the orphaned elephants are gradually weaned and learn how to live as wild elephants, spending much of their days walking with the Keepers far and wide in the bush. Here, they interact with wild herds and learn about elephant society and accepted behaviour, returning to the Unit’s in the evening to ensure they are protected from predators.
Exposing the orphaned elephants to a vast wilderness in the safety of a protected area hones natural wild instincts, given that elephants are born with a genetic memory. They are guided, mentored and befriended by older orphans already living wild lives who gradually introduce the younger ones to a more independent life, remembering that elephants duplicate our own life in terms of age progression. Important friendships are forged within the wild herds, and the males tend to gravitate to much older bulls to learn from and emulate and in time they wander further afield. The friendships forged through the Nursery years remain firm for a life time as they move freely within the wild herds, with new relationships forged all the time. Becoming independent is a slow process for elephants taking anywhere between 8 to 12 years before they are comfortable and confident enough to stay permanently out in the wild, independent of their Keepers, and this is often dictated by how young they are when orphaned, with the very young taking much longer because they have little recollection of their elephant family and the wild. Once they have flown the nest the orphaned elephants never forget, and they choose of their own free will to return and visit their human family from time to time and always share the joy of their wild born young.