Elephant orphans find comfort in wool blankets

By Tracy Brighten

When baby elephants lose their mother, soft blankets give comfort and protect them from wind, rain and sun at an elephant nursery in Nairobi

DSWT elephant orphan

Elephants are victims of habitat destruction, human-elephant conflict, and more significantly, ivory poaching, which leaves dependent young elephants unable to survive. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is an anti-poaching, rescue and rehabilitation charity operating aerial surveillance teams and working with the Kenyan Wildlife Service to rescue rhino and elephant orphans.

The Trust warns of the consequences of not taking action to save elephant populations.

“At the current rate elephant poaching, with an estimated one elephant killed every 15 minutes for its ivory, a lack of action could see the loss of wild elephants in Africa by 2025.”

When a young calf is orphaned, it is often because a poacher has killed its mother for the ivory trade. Occasionally though, a herd must make the difficult decision to abandon a new born if it is unable to keep up with the herd, or if it has become stuck in mud or a water hole.

Tiny Kamok was found wandering alone, uneasy on her little legs, with no sign of her herd. Back at the Nairobi nursery, it was discovered that this day old calf had weak joints. Even new-borns are expected to travel long distances. Earlier this year, a three week old calf was found in a well by the community and the trust was alerted. Their mobile rescue team airlifted the orphan to the Nairobi Elephant Nursery in Samburu National Reserve, Nairobi National Park, where the trust runs its Orphan’s Project.

Elephant calves need suitable milk to survive

A calf depends on its mother’s milk for the first two years and would die without the trust’s care and expertise. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who founded the trust in 1977 in honour of her husband, naturalist David Sheldrick, was the first person to raise an elephant orphan that was still dependent on milk. Daphne developed orphan husbandry and a milk formula by trial and error over many years until she successfully raised a calf younger than one year old using baby formula and coconut milk.

With their expertise, dedication, and worldwide support, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust team has saved over 150 elephants. A team of keepers cares for each elephant orphan until it is fully grown, independent and chooses to live with wild herds, which usually happens by the age of ten.

Colourful blankets comfort and protect 

Colourful blankets have become a symbol of the orphanage, but they are much more than a symbol. These soft blankets offer a substitute to young elephant orphans for the comfort and protection that would have been provided by their doting mother.

In the wild, vulnerable elephant calves are protected from the wind, rain, and heat as they stand close to their mother and extended family members. They are prone to pneumonia from the change in temperature with hot days and cold nights.

At the nursery, keepers use colourful blankets to keep babies warm at night, or waterproof blankets, soft underneath, to keep rain off during the day. Blankets are also hung vertically in the orphan’s sleeping quarters, or between trees. A blanket not only provides a screen while babies are bottle fed, but replicates their mother’s body as they rest their trunk against it.

Broken bonds and trust are rebuilt

Elephants are highly social animals and grieve like humans for their lost family. Young elephant orphans are often found clinging to their mother’s corpse. Females are especially impacted by the loss of, or detachment from, their herd because they form strong emotional bonds that last a lifetime. Young bulls tend to leave the herd at puberty to roam with other males, where they learn from elders how to survive until they meet female herds for mating.

The Sheldrick trust recognises the importance of psychological care alongside physical care to enable elephant orphans to grow into adults that will be accepted by wild herds. Elephant keepers become their new family, whether out and about during the day, or sleeping alongside their elephant orphans at night. Baby elephants need sincere affection to replace their mother’s care, and elephants are naturally drawn to genuine keepers. Infant elephants respond to kindness, and keepers are able to control bad behaviour simply by words and gestures, such is the orphan’s trust and eagerness to please a caring keeper.

ivory elephant orphans

Keepers are rotated among the orphans to prevent their over attachment to one person, which can result in life-threatening diarrhoea if keeper and orphan are temporarily separated.

Poaching trauma can be fatal 

The tragic consequences of psychological trauma and resulting diarrhoea were seen when the team were unable to save Losito, the baby elephant rescued when five family members were poached in Tsavo National Park in August. The trust lamented the tiny calf’s death on their Facebook page.

“The trauma from watching his family gunned down, and the stress he endured, proved too much for him.”

Young elephants are not just orphaned by poachers. Little Wei Wei was only three weeks old when he became a victim of the growing problem of human-elephant conflict. Wei Wei’s herd were chased off a smallholding when they encroached one night. In the morning, villagers found the tiny calf who had been left behind in the confusion. Kenyan Wildlife Services could not locate his herd, so a DSWT rescue team was sent to airlift Wei Wei to the orphanage where he will receive the milk formula he needs to survive.  KWS asked that the calf be named Wei Wei after the river close to where he was found.

At two years old, young elephants are transferred to the rehabilitation centre at Tsavo East National Park where they join up with elephants they recognise from the Nairobi nursery. Here, elephants enjoy bush walks and mud baths, and they no longer sleep with their keeper as they are gradually prepared for life back in the wild of the Tsavo Conservation Area.

elephant orphans bush walk

Community Outreach Programs

The trust also runs Community Outreach Programs that focus on improving community living and education, wildlife education, and assistance with human-elephant conflict prevention. Children from Kenyan schools visit the elephant orphanage where they learn about the trust’s work and the impact of ivory poaching, and they may even become the wildlife guardians of the future. With funding from British Airways, the trust has also erected beehive fencing based on Dr Lucy King’s Elephant and Bees project, helping to protect community land near trust headquarters in Tsavo. The beehives recently produced their first batch of elephant-friendly honey.

DSWT outreach

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, winner of the Just Giving Charity of the Year 2015 award, receives visitors from around the world for a short period each day. But if you can’t go in person, Google and Save the Elephants have joined forces to provide a virtual experience of Kenya’s Samburu Park, including the Nairobi Elephant Nursery.

If you would like to support David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s inspiring work, their website has more details about their Orphan’s Project as well as stories of rescued orphans you can foster in their foster program.

You might also like to read Charles Siebert’s wonderful feature on the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust published in National Geographic

Image credit: Thank you to the following photographers for powerful images that show the trust’s care and love for vulnerable elephant orphans as they help them in their journey back to the wild.

[Stockade] Security by Marie and Alistair Knock on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Feeding Time [at DSWT] by Marie and Alastair Knock on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Ivory orphans of Kenya [at DSWT] by Richard Probst on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Here come the baby elephants by Anita Ritenour on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
[DSWT elephant orphanage] by ninara on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Source The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Wilderness Journal: Orphans in blankets

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About Tracy Brighten

With her passion for nature, health, education, and sustainability, Tracy writes creative content that connects with readers. She helps tell people's stories, build brands, and grow businesses. Thrives on words, birds and enthusiasm. For hire at www.tracybrightenwriter.com.

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