The ancients thought that rain was the tears of the Gods. During my most recent visit to the David Sheldrick Trust orphanage for elephants in Nairobi, the heavens opened up and poured on these babies during their afternoon feeding. But no amount of rain or thunder could keep them from their “bottles” of milk, a formula developed by the Sheldrick Trust over decades or trial and error.
This milk and the care of the Keepers at the Trust have given a new lease on life to scores of baby elephants whose mothers were taken by poaching or natural causes. Without the care of his or her mother, any elephant younger than two will likely not survive. The wonderful thing about the Sheldrick program that rescuing baby orphans is only the beginning. After a rescued baby is stabilized physically and emotionally, reintegration to the wild becomes the priority.
Later in the trip, we stayed at the Ithumba outpost in Voi, where “juniors” (aged 3 to 6) are reintroduced to the wild. At sunrise, we arrived at the stockades, where the youngest juniors sleep, to observe their morning feeding, followed by the opening of the stockades.
Meanwhile, from the surrounding forests, emerge several herds of wild elephants plus the older juniors who sleep outside the stockades.
By now, there are more than 70 elephants, from the youngest juniors to orphans who are spending half their time with wild herds, to the wild elephants who love the waterhole at the stockades as well as this integrated community of elephants.
As the morning progresses, we need the keepers to tell us which elephants are ex-orphans and which are wild, the interaction is so complete.
Perhaps the most touching event was seeing several females, one-time orphans who have reintegrated into the wild, and now pregnant. It completes the cycle of recovery, to be integrated back into the wild, and bringing into the world a new life. We met Wendy (below), who is due to deliver any day now.
It remains an unknown — will a female elephant, who was not raised in the traditional manner, know how to be a mother? We know in breeding herds that have lost their matriarch and other experienced females, younger elephants sometimes exhibit dysfunctional behavior. And, young females from those herds who become pregnant often do not know how to handle a baby. As a tribute to the “mothering” the Trust employs in training orphans for normal, “real” life in the wild, an incredible event recently took place. In December, another ex-orphan, Emily, who has already given birth to two wild-born calves, returned to one of Sheldrick’s Voi outposts to deliver her third baby – a highly unusual occurrence as most females go into seclusion to deliver their babies. This film shows the amazing event.
Over Thanksgiving holidays, I lost my mother. No matter how old you are, losing your mother is a monumental sadness, leaving a hole in your heart forever. My loss is strangely softened when I consider this summer’s visit with the orphans and appreciate the truly incredible work done by the Sheldrick Trust. I originally intended to post this story closer to Mother’s Day. But now, every day for me is a Mother’s Day of sorts as I give thanks for the special mother I was fortunate to have for my 63 years.
Please consider fostering a baby elephant as a tribute to your mother and all the mothers in the world who make each of our lives possible. Click here for more information on the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. And, for a complete history of the Trust, do read Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s wonderful book, “Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story.”