Watching infant elephants feeding and playing is magical, but bonding with them is a breath-taking experience unique to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust as Oroni Tendera writes.
Sandwiched between the KWS staff quarters and the Nairobi national park, is the little known Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a safe haven for rescued orphaned infant elephants.
“Our mission is to save elephants from us humans,” says the chief ranger as he ushers us into the orphanage.
We position ourselves around an open field, the size of a basketball pitch; cameras rolling and clicking. The chief ranger walks to the middle of the field and snaps his fingers. Reacting from the cue, six young elephants emerge from a nearby bush, running. They surround him.
“These orphans are very fragile and must be watched closely at all times. The keepers protect them with blankets when it is cold. Right now we are going to feed them on human baby formula milk,” he says.
Six keepers dressed in long green jackets and white gumboots emerge from the bush holding feeding bottles. They stand strategically, adjacent to the chief ranger and the calves. Gently, the six calves walk to the six rangers. Each calf seems to know its keeper. As they suckle milk from the huge bottles, they rest their trunks on the neck, face and armpits of their respective feeders.
“The keepers remain with the orphans 24 hours a day, providing round-the clock care, milk on demand, and plenty of love and guidance just as a mother elephant would in the wild. Baby elephants have a super-sharp memory. That’s why they all remember their keepers,” explains the chief ranger.
The feeding program takes about ten minutes. Satisfied to their fill, the calves roll themselves on the muddy ground, playing with twigs and kicking rubber balls and stones joyfully. “Baby elephants duplicate children in so many ways. They have unlimited access to nature’s toys, such as sticks and stones and play things such as rubber tubes. You are free to touch them as they move close to you,” announces the ranger.
True to his words, two calves begin to walk towards us. I step forward as other tourists back off with fear. I outstretch my two hands and rub their rough dusty backs. One of them, a bull, drops a twig that he has been holding with his trunk and walks away. “Bulls are more independent than females. The one standing next to you is a female calf called Zawadi,” he says.
Zawadi has two huge scars on her back, a clear indicator of her troubled past. I later learn that she found refuge in Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in January 2019. She was reported wandering alone within community land and following herders with their livestock in Maasai Mara, presumably in desperate need of company. Sadly, the community had fired two arrows into her.
The KWS team located her, looking weak and in dire need of medical attention. They tended her wound before getting her to an airstrip for transfer to the nursery.
Zawadi bids me farewell by raising her trunk in the air then joins her friends. One naughty bull kicks a bucket full of water, emptying its content. As if celebrating the mess that he has done, he rumbles and trumpets loudly.
“Just like human children, naughty elephant calves are taught acceptable behavior. This is meted cautiously through a chastising tone of voice and accusatory wagging of a finger. It is essential to show forgiveness so that the calf understands it was scolded for a momentary wrong doing.”
The calves are led back to the bush by their keepers. “Right now the calves are close to their keepers but as they get older, they begin to fraternize more with other elephants,” he explains.
“How long does it take for an orphaned elephant to be reintegrated to the wild?” I ask.
“Each orphan decides when to make the transition into a wild herd. This is influenced by the age at which the calf was orphaned, their unique personality and the friends they have made,” he responds.
“Once introduced to the wild, do the orphans remember giving their keepers surprise visits?” Asks a middle-aged Indian lady.
“They visit from time to time; share their wild-born babies with us, confident that their human family will always be there for them. I also urge you to protect these endangered species by speaking out against poaching and ivory trade in your respective countries,” he speaks with finality.
I realize it is already noon, time to leave. Sheldrick Wildlife Trust hosts tourists daily (including public holidays) from 11am to 12noon at a fee of Ksh 500.