Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Elephant Orphans

The beauty and joy of this place keeps coming on for me, never better realized (so far) than the visit this morning to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to see the baby elephants having their daily introduction to visitors. Each morning for an hour, at 11:00, visitors are allowed to watch these orphaned animals interact with their individual keepers and have their daily dose of milk from giant milk bottles. We also had the chance to observe them at play in their private mud-hole which provided much delight to all of us.

I had fallen hard for the elephant when on safari in Kruger some years back, but I had not given much thought to their growth, as our connections had been mainly with adult elephants. So their childhood had not been very much on my radar. Nor had been the dangers associated with being deprived of growth if they are orphaned, since if not taken in and cared for, orphaned infant elephants will die.

One person who did spent much time thinking about the life cycle of the elephant was David Sheldrick, the Founder Warden of Kenya's giant Tsavo East National Park. Sheldrick had taken a special interest in orphan elephants and his widow Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick has spent many years perfecting methodologies for rearing infant orphaned elephants. Their difficult plight comes about for a number of reasons, as when poachers kill the mother or some accident robs the infant elephant of the parent. When the orphan is discovered and can be brought to the trust, they are given very loving and protective care by their keepers (who, in fact, become their "permanent" care givers for the entire time the babies are in care, sometimes for several years).

Since 1987, the trust has successfully hand-reared over 85 newborn and very young elephant orphans, and it was a great delight to hear the speakers speak about them, about how they were found and brought to the trust to be cared for, and how they will be looked after until they are able to be released into the wild elephant community.

Beginning with a stately procession coming down from the forest, we visitors saw three groups of orphans come processing into the visitors' area of the Rehabilitation Centre, processing along single file with their keepers - in smart green smocks - walking along with them. There were about 24 of them altogether. The youngest had blankets over them (since pneumonia is a constant threat apparently to infant elephants), the middle-group followed along behind, and the last group - some eight or nine older (up to 18 months or so) - coming in after the others had left. The babies drank their milk, played with their keepers (while some keepers told us their various histories), played in the water with sticks and their rubber ball, and they all generally had a good time until it was time to process out of the area.

Quite an experience, and a lovely way to begin a beautiful Sunday in Nairobi.

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