Michelle Loewenstein
3 minute read
4 Dec 2015
2:57 pm

Wildlife sanctuary saves baby giants

Michelle Loewenstein

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is a sanctuary for orphaned elephants whose families have been poached.

We race through the Nairobi National Park, our heads almost hitting the roof of the game-viewing vehicle as we bump along.

We have an important appointment to get to – the elephant orphans at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) get fed for an hour and we need to hurry to see the show.

“Wait! Stop! A zebra!” someone yells and we come to a screeching halt so everyone can take pictures.

Our hosts from Google have us all competing for the title of best photographer on the trip, so everyone is constantly snapping away and uploading pics to social media. The night before we were due to visit the DSWT, I had spent some time with my new friend Gugulethu (the name I’d given my Motorola Nexus 6 because I could ask Google questions on it and it would respond) researching the elephant orphanage.

What I found was probably the most touching website I’ve ever come across, telling the story of how one ranger’s quest to save a baby elephant from a drought turned into an amazing initiative.

The DSWT was started by Dr Daphne Sheldrick, the wife of the ranger who rescued the young elephant many years ago. The trust saves orphaned elephants, as well as other animals, with the end goal being reintegration into the Tsavo East National Park. All of the elephants they have rehabilitated have been able to return to the wild.

This project has taken much research, love, heartache and patience on the parts of the Sheldrick family, as well as the amazing men who literally give up their lives to act as substitute families for the orphaned animals.

These keepers sleep alongside their young charges in their enclosures at night, covering the smaller ones to prevent them from falling ill as baby elephants are prone to pneumonia.

Many of the orphans were left for dead by poachers, who feel nothing for the mothers they slaughter for ivory. Elephants are sensitive creatures, so in addition to providing much-needed medical care for the often malnourished, injured babies that are rescued, the keepers have to make sure the orphans feel loved and secure.

No orphans are turned away so whenever one is spotted, a skilled team is mobilised to rescue the baby and take it to the orphanage. When we finally make it to the sanctuary – in the nick of time – the babies are already in the feeding area, trumpeting in frustration when one of their friends gets a bottle before them.

Elephants mature at the same rate as humans, so the babies are just like toddlers – naughty, mischievous and incredibly cute. The smallest baby sucks on a keeper’s finger, looking for reassurance.

The bond between them spans a lifetime, with some returning to their “human family” many years after they go back to the wild for a visit or medical care.

Later I ask Julius Shivega, who gave up his day job to be a keeper, about this relationship. “If you love an elephant, he will love you. He knows your heart,” he says.