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

When elephants become victims of habitat destruction, human-elephant conflict and ivory poaching, their young calves can’t survive without help. Fortunately, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, in collaboration with the Kenyan Wildlife Service, provides a lifeline for elephant and rhino orphans.

Set up in 1977, the Trust is an anti-poaching, rescue and rehabilitation charity. With decades of experience on the front line, the Trust warns of the devastating consequences of elephant poaching.

“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.”

While young calves often become orphans because poachers kill their mothers, occasionally, a herd must make the difficult decision to abandon a newborn. This may happen if the calf is unable to keep up with the herd, or if it has become stuck in mud or a waterhole.

Tiny Kamok was found wandering alone, uneasy on her little legs, with no sign of her herd. The rescue team took her to the Nairobi nursery where it was discovered that this day-old calf had weak joints. Even newborns are expected to travel long distances and can get left behind. Earlier this year, a local community found a three-week-old calf in a well and they alerted the Trust. 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 of life and would die without the Trust’s care and expertise. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who founded the Trust* in honour of her husband, naturalist David Sheldrick, was the first person to raise an elephant orphan that was still dependent on milk. Over many years, Daphne developed orphan husbandry and a milk formula by trial and error until she successfully raised a calf less than a year old using baby formula and coconut milk.

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

Colourful blankets comfort and protect orphans

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 by standing close to their mother and extended family members. Young calves are prone to pneumonia from the change in temperature between hot days and cold nights.

At the nursery, keepers use colourful blankets to keep babies warm at night, and waterproof blankets, soft underneath, to keep the 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 or detachment from their herd because they form strong emotional bonds that last a lifetime. Young bulls tend to leave the matriarch’s herd at puberty to roam with other males, learning from elders how to survive until the time comes to meet female herds for mating.

The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust recognises the importance of psychological care alongside physical care to ensure elephant orphans grow into adults that will be accepted by wild herds. Elephant keepers become the orphan’s 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, so 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, so great is the orphan’s trust and eagerness to please a caring keeper.

ivory elephant orphans

Keepers are rotated among the orphans to prevent them becoming too attached 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 witnessed when the team was 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 was chased from a smallholding when they encroached on the land one night. In the morning, villagers found this tiny calf left behind in the confusion. Kenyan Wildlife Services could not locate Wei Wei’s herd, so a Sheldrick Trust rescue team was sent to airlift him to the orphanage where he will receive the milk formula he needs to survive. KWS asked if the calf could be named Wei Wei, the name of 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 in preparation 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 education and living, wildlife education, and assistance with the prevention of human-elephant conflict. Children from Kenyan schools visit the elephant orphanage where they learn about the Trust’s work and the impact of ivory poaching; 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 the Trust’s headquarters in Tsavo. The beehives recently produced their first batch of elephant-friendly honey.

DSWT outreach

The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the winner of the Just Giving Charity of the Year 2015 award, welcomes visitors from around the world for a short period each day. 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. Why not get involved and support the Trust’s work to give orphans the chance of a long and natural life back in the wild!

Note: * Since the death of Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is now known as the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Family members and their teams in Kenya continue her lifelong work to conserve wildlife.

If you would like to support the 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 their work showing the trust’s care for vulnerable elephant orphans as they prepare them for life back in 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)

Information source: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Wilderness Journal: Orphans in blankets