It was love at first sight.
As I caught a first glimpse of the man in the green overalls in the distance, my sense of anticipation grew. Behind him, jostling for position as they raced through the bush, came the babies I had travelled so far to meet. They rushed because they knew what time it was. It was feeding time. In front of me, in a dusty enclosure, stood several wheelbarrows guarded by more green overalls. They contained the largest baby bottles I’d ever seen, for these weren’t for humans. These were for the orphaned elephants rescued by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust from all over Kenya and brought here to this private sanctuary on the edge of its capital, Nairobi.
The first of the babies reached the enclosure, her chunky feet kicking up dust as she headed straight for the bottle. The keeper held out the bottle as she sucked greedily on the teat. Milk dribbled down her chin and puddled onto the red earth. In huge gulps, the milk was drained; seconds later a second bottle was called for. In all there were around a dozen orphans, some just a few months old, others up to three years older. The youngest sported blankets across their backs, protection against the risk of pneumonia that could snatch their young life so easily.
Empty bottles were discarded. Their special formula, created after years of trial and error, replicates as closely as possible the milk that their mothers would have provided. Their stories, as relayed to the crowd of visitors by their human surrogate dads, were tragic. Some were the victims of cruel poachers who had hunted their parents for their precious tusks. Others had lost their mother to severe drought, watching helplessly as they had starved and fallen. Still more had been found alone, wandering without the protection of their herd. I was particularly touched by the story of a tiny orphan called Naipoki. Found down a well and released to rejoin her family, the same well claimed her the following day and she was brought to the orphanage for her own safety. She wasn’t the brightest elephant, it seemed, but she was the cutest. There was something about this little elephant’s story that warmed my heart.
Feed over, it was time for the orphans to meet the crowd who had come for visiting hour. Naipoki slid close to the rope that separated us, nestling her head into my chest as her keeper gently nudged her along. Even at her size, she was still a wild animal, unpredictable. She worked her way along the rope, garnering gasps from men, women and children alike. Next to her stable mates, she was tiny, just a few feet tall. The black hairs on her back had felt rough as I stroked them, her skin tough and ridged to the touch in contrast to the soft fleece she wore. That navy blanket, held in place with a belt of knotted ladies’ tights, set her apart from the others, making it simple to track where she’d gone.
A football was produced. The orphans loved to play, the ball rolling back and forth along their enclosure into a hollow that flooded to a pond in wet season. That day it was cool, but we were told that on a hot day the babies love a sloppy mud bath, respite from the hot tropical sun that burned their ears unless the keepers applied liberal quantities of sunscreen. In the wild they’d be able to shelter under the mobile shade provided by their mother’s tummy. In the dry, they took dust baths, their grey skin camouflaged under a thick layer of terracotta soil.
That day, the football was forgotten in favour of a pile-up. Crashing around was fun, and if you could knock your friends over, even more so. It was good natured, though the green overalls kept a watchful eye in case those at the bottom of the heap were getting squashed. Sometimes, the orphans needed a bit of help getting to their feet, the weight of their body proving a little too heavy as their legs floundered, kicking wildly in the air. As clumsy as a chunky-legged toddler, they were inelegant and unsteady. Bums in the air, trunks waving, they cut a comical figure, drawing a steady flow of chuckles from the crowd.
Too soon their hour of playtime was up. The public can only view these adorable creatures for an hour each day, allowing plenty of time for the keepers to nurture and care for them. Each night, the keepers sleep on the stable floor with their charge, rotating to ensure the creatures don’t form too close an attachment to just one human. If that were to happen, when the keeper took time off, the elephant would pine and, off their milk, that could prove fatal.
Each day, the elephant orphans were given time in the bush too, ensuring that when the time came to wean them off the life-saving milk, they would be able to lead a semi-wild life away from the city at the charity’s rehabilitation unit at distant Voi, and later still return to the wild within the sanctuary of Tsavo National Park.
Tragically some orphans don’t make it, injuries too severe to treat or infections too virulent to contain. Others are simply too traumatised to cope with the loss of their family and pine away. But thanks to the efforts of the team here at the orphanage and a successful sponsorship programme providing a steady stream of donations, many do survive, and go on to thrive back in the wild. The programme has been overseen for decades by a formidable British ex-pat, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, whose lifetime love of Africa’s amazing creatures led her to set up this project in memory of her late husband, the founder warden of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. Because of her, there’s now a herd of elephants down in Tsavo that otherwise wouldn’t have made it.
As I headed out of the enclosure, the story wasn’t over for me. I took out a sponsorship for Naipoki. Since leaving Kenya, I’ve been able to keep track of Naipoki’s progress, watching her grow into a young creature with a strong maternal instinct and a playful nature. No longer milk dependent, she’s thriving at the Voi Rehabilitation Unit, learning the survival skills she’ll need to cope in the wild. I couldn’t be more proud.