Cute. Baby. Elephants. Do I have you hooked? If not, try these images:
Viewing baby elephants this close in the wild is a dangerous proposition as there is always a protective mother around, weighing approximately 40 to 50 times that of a human, to bully off onlookers. Yet for an hour each day, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust opens its doors and allows visitors (for 500 Kenyan Shillings, or about $6 US) to experience the orphaned elephants you see above as they are bottle-fed and play in a mud bath.
David Sheldrick was the first warden in the Eastern Section of the newly minted Tsavo National Park in Kenya in 1948. His life’s pursuit was the conservation and protection of the wildlife inside the park and he was a pioneer of the study of elephant diets, a skill that grew out of his desire to aid orphaned elephants that had lost their mother to poachers. Along with his wife, Dr. Daphne Sheldrick, the couple rehabilitated rhinos, impalas, buffalo and many other animals, but it was the elephant herds, prized for their tusks, which received the most attention.
Today Dr. Sheldrick still lives and works at the Trust’s center just outside of Nairobi, Kenya. It is there that volunteers, signing up for 10 year stints with the trust, feed, bathe, care for and eventually reintroduce into the wild baby elephants brought in from around Kenya.
When the workers and elephants first come to the viewing area/mud bath just after 11am each morning, the tone of the crowd of tourists, often numbering over 100, becomes electric. Cameras pop up, kids point at the smallest, cutest elephants who often can be seen grasping the tail of the elephant in front of them with their own truck. The elephants’ pace quickens as they spot the mud bath and the balls surrounding it, free for their play. The elephants are also excited, but not for the tourists behind the yellow rope. They are excited because it is feeding time.
Elephants arrive at the park sometimes only hours old. Their mothers have died for one reason or another (natural causes, predator attacks, poaching) and through radio and phone calls, the Trust is brought in as the only chance for the young ones. Baby elephants put on pounds of weight each day and an elephant lost to its herd will not last long in the direct African sun without milk. The staff at the Trust will not only constantly feed the elephants every few hours, as a mother would, but they will also shade and care for the elephants until about age two when they are ready to be reintroduced into the wild.
What I love about this organization is it does not exist to showcase the elephants or accommodate tourists, for the most part. There is something of a ‘gift area’ where local artists sell wares, but as far as I remember there were no bathrooms, no water fountain and guests are only allowed to stay for one hour, leaving the elephants and caretakers to be on with their day.
The Trust does a good job of having caretakers explain how the elephants are cared for while the feeding and playing is happening. But it is often hard to pay attention while the babies are slipping and sliding in the mud, kicking or nudging a ball back and forth with other elephants and humans alike. The time is short. The bonus is a chance to reach out and touch a wild animal. A chance to connect.
Unlike a zoo, the Trust does not look to tame the elephants any more than a typical elephant herd would. The over arching goal of the Trust is to teach baby elephants (and rhinos and a few other animals in their care) how to get along in a wild herd. Social roles, finding food and water. When ready, the elephants are taken to a section of Tsavo National Park and, over the next eight to ten years, become fully wild elephants once again.
If you can’t make it to Kenya any time soon, you can find out more about the trust at this link. For a small fee (about $4/month), you can foster any elephant in the program by reading an Orphan Profile like this one for Chyulu, orphaned at 5 months (complete with a lot of photos and story).
But if you can make it to Nairobi, please go see the elephants for yourself. They will change the way you connect with the natural world around you and bring you a better understanding of how the Trust’s work is creating a better world for animals and humans alike.
The center is a 30 minute taxi ride (about $40 round trip) from downtown Nairobi and you should expect traffic, plus trouble parking. Again, this operation isn’t set up for humans, it’s created for elephants: early arrival is highly suggested. The gate opens at 10:45am.