Sheldrick Wildlife Orphanage



Life or Drought? . . . Crisis in Kenya


Photos and text by Lisa Hoffner

The first person in the world to successfully raise elephant orphans from infancy, Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her staff of keepers kept pace with drought and poaching victims at her orphanage in Kenya last year.  New arrivals often came in two at a time, says Lisa Hoffner, who has recently returned from Nairobi and Tsavo.


            “A long spear, bent backwards, was protruding from her head and lodged deep into the skull, midway between her eyes.  There were also other wounds on her body, likely caused by an axe.”  This is the gruesome description of an elephant – later named Murka – who narrowly escaped death one day last year and is now one of a growing number of residents at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya.  Stories similar to Murka’s – shocking though they may be – are becoming more common as a result of extreme weather patterns, drought and a rise in poaching.


            The world famous David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – also known as the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage – can be found within the confines of Nairobi, one of Africa’s most densely populated cities.  Tucked away within NairobiNational Park, the Trust is a safe haven for Kenya’s orphaned elephants and rhinos.  After more than 28 years and at times heartbreaking effort, Daphne Sheldrick finally cracked the code in 1987 to successfully rear the most difficult wild animal to raise from infancy – orphaned elephant babies.


            Elephants, widely known to parallel humans in their development, are raised in a sort of hybrid human-elephant herd at Sheldrick’s orphanage.  Perhaps surprisingly, men instead of women are the matriarchs in this new surrogate herd.  Known as “keepers,” these men shadow the elephant babies, feeding them milk every three hours and even sleeping with them at night.  Correct husbandry, specialized care, along with a specialized milk formula, is an essential component to success in rearing the elephants.

“Elephants have identical emotions to us humans plus many additional attributes that we lack,” comments Sheldrick, the grand architect of this unique blend of elephant and human life.


            Eventually, the orphans, along with their keepers, are transported to Tsavo, one of the world’s largest National Parks – equivalent to the size of Israel – to make the transition to the wild herds.  Elephant calves remain in this makeshift family until the orphans are emotionally ready and have the skill sets necessary for survival – a process that can take up to 10 years to complete.


            More than 50 years of bush living and learning qualify Daphne and her orphanage to serve as a barometer for the health of elephant populations in Kenya.  What she was not prepared for, however, was the astronomical influx of orphaned elephants that came through her stables last year.  The 2009 drought went down in the record books as the worst drought in decades.  Caused by the culmination of several years of erratic and poor rainfall – and the complete failure of any rain for over 12 months spanning 2008-09 – the toll on wildlife was enormous.  Drought, coupled with an upsurge in human-wildlife conflict and ivory poaching, was especially devastating to young elephants.

            According to Daphne, “Milk-dependent young died in droves throughout Laikipia and in Tsavo.”  The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was the recipient of some of those victims and last year the elephant-sized baby bottles – and their keepers -- were working overtime.  The Trust rescued 53 elephant babies and two black rhino orphans, compared with a typical year of five to seven elephant rescues.  The Nairobi nursery peaked with 33 orphaned infant elephants as full-time residents, a new record by more than 50 percent.


            “Last year’s drought was very unique,” explains Daphne.  “All of the protected areas were invaded by cattle; some bused from far afield.  Their presence in the parks monopolized the few remaining waterholes and consuming what fodder remained was disastrous, resulting in the loss of more herbivores than in any drought in living memory.”  Adding yet another layer of complexity was that many elephant orphans rescued by the Trust died of mysterious ailments, such as rota virus and blood-sucking gut parasites transmitted by the cattle.


            Where there is weakness there is opportunity, and with desperation at an all-time high, the opportunists took their best shot at wildlife.  Literally.  Elephants and rhinos became the targets of the poachers’ trigger-ready fingers.  Ivory seizures and rhino horn poaching in Kenya alone have reached an all-time high, say KWS officials.  As far as elephant mortality, “lack of water was the biggest cause of death.  However, 90 percent of the elephants killed, were killed for ivory,” reports Abuadan Yuseuf, senior warden of Tsavo East.


            Elephants such as Murka wear the wounds that underscore the area’s problems, although some were not as lucky as she to survive.  Unable to use her trunk to drink water as a healthy elephant would, and extremely wary of humans, the strong-willed Murka is healing and slowly accepting her new-found family.


            At 76 years of age, Daphne continues to be intimately involved in the Trust and, with the help of her daughter Angela and son-in-law Robert Carr-Hartely, they will continue to care for the likes of Murka.  With 130 successful elephant and 14 rhino rescues to date, Angela Sheldrick notes:  “The Trust’s future is assured as long as there is wildlife and habitats to be saved.”


            Which is good news, as early reports of a “La Nina” weather system have analysts predicting yet another season of drought in the coming months.