Published: September 2011

Orphan Elephants

a baby elephant in a custom-made raincoat

Orphans No More

After the trauma of attack and loss comes healing—and a richer understanding of the emotions and intelligence of elephants.

By Charles Siebert
Photograph by Michael Nichols

Along the northern rim of Kenya's Nairobi National Park, a mysterious array of brightly colored wool blankets can be seen draped over the gnarled branches of some of the forest's upwardly braiding croton trees. Set against the region's otherwise drab browns and greens, the hanging blankets could be construed as remnants of some ancient tribal ritual—until shortly before five each evening, when their function as part of a new interspecies experiment becomes apparent.

Off in the distance a few upright figures in bright green coats and crumpled white safari hats appear, calling out names in trilling, high-pitched voices: "Kalama!" "Kitirua!" "Olare!" All at once baby elephants emerge from the brush, a straggled procession of 18 flap-eared brown heads, their long trunks steering their bulbous heft with a heavily hypnotic grace. They come to rest beneath the color-draped trees, where the keepers tie a blanket around each one for warmth before resuming the trek home.

Home is the Nairobi nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the world's most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. The nursery takes in orphan elephants from all over Kenya, many victims of poaching or human-wildlife conflict, and raises them until they are no longer milk dependent. Once healed and stabilized at the nursery, they are moved more than a hundred miles southeast to two holding centers in Tsavo National Park. There, at their own pace, which can be up to eight to ten years, they gradually make the transition back into the wild. The program is a cutting-edge experiment in cross-species empathy that only the worst extremes of human insensitivity could have necessitated.

These are sad and perilous days for the world's largest land animal. Once elephants roamed the Earth like waterless whales, plying ancient migratory routes ingrained in their prodigious memories. Now they've been backed into increasingly fragmented territories. When not being killed for their tusks or for bush meat, they are struggling against loss of habitat due to human population pressures and drought. A 1979 survey of African elephants estimated a population of about 1.3 million. About 500,000 remain. In Asia an estimated 40,000 are left in the wild. And yet even as the elephant population dwindles, the number of human-elephant conflicts rises. In Africa, reports of elephants and villagers coming into conflict with each other appear almost daily.

A recent arrival at the Nairobi nursery was an elephant named Murka, rescued near Tsavo National Park with a spear lodged deep between her eyes and gaping spear and axe wounds along her back and sides. The spear had penetrated ten inches, rupturing her sinuses, which prevented her from using her trunk to drink. Her deep wounds were filled with maggots. Most likely orphaned by poachers who killed her mother for profit, the one-year-old baby is believed to have been subsequently attacked by local Maasai tribesmen who were angry about losing their traditional grazing land to the park. A mobile vet unit was able to tranquilize her, clean her wounds, and extract the spear.

The plight of elephants has become so dire that their greatest enemy—humans—is also their only hope, a topsy-turvy reality that moved a woman named Daphne Sheldrick to establish the nursery back in 1987. Sheldrick is fourth-generation Kenya-born and has spent the better part of her life tending wild animals. Her husband was David Sheldrick, the renowned naturalist and founding warden of Tsavo East National Park who died of a heart attack in 1977. She's reared abandoned baby buffalo, dik-diks, impalas, zebras, warthogs, and black rhinos, among others, but no creature has beguiled her more than elephants.

Orphan infant elephants are a challenge to raise because they remain fully dependent on their mother's milk for the first two years of life and partially so until the age of four. In the decades the Sheldricks spent together in Tsavo, they never succeeded in raising an orphan younger than one because they couldn't find a formula that matched the nutritional qualities of a mother's milk. Aware that elephant milk is high in fat, they tried adding cream and butter to the mix, but found the babies had trouble digesting it and soon died. They then used a nonfat milk that the elephants could digest better, but eventually, after growing thinner and thinner on that formula, these orphans succumbed as well. Shortly before David's death, the couple finally arrived at a precise mixture of human baby formula and coconut. This kept alive a three-week-old orphan named Aisha, helping her grow stronger every day.

It was Aisha that revealed to Daphne another essential ingredient for raising an orphan elephant. When Daphne traveled to Nairobi to prepare for a daughter's wedding, she left Aisha, then six months old, in the care of an assistant. In the two weeks she was away, Aisha stopped eating and died, apparently overcome with grief at the loss of another mother. "When Aisha died, I realized the mistake I'd made," says Daphne, still pained by the memory. "She missed me too much. You mustn't let an elephant get too attached to one person. It was stupid of me to think I could do it without substituting a larger family. I mean, I knew wild elephants. I had watched the elephants in Tsavo my entire married life, so I should have known better. One just has to look at an elephant group to understand the importance of family. So we have to replace what the elephant would have in the wild."

Any wild elephant group is, in essence, one large and highly sensitive organism. Young elephants are raised within a matriarchal family of doting female caregivers, beginning with the birth mother and then branching out to include sisters, cousins, aunts, grandmothers, and established friends. These bonds endure over a life span that can be as long as 70 years. Young elephants stay close to their mothers and extended family members—males until they are about 14, females for life. When a calf is threatened or harmed, all the other elephants comfort and protect it.

This cohesiveness is enforced by a complex communication system. When close to each other, elephants employ a range of vocalizations, from low rumblings to high-pitched screams and trumpets, along with assorted visual signals. They express a range of emotions using their trunk, ears, head, and tail. When they need to communicate over longer distances, they use powerful low-frequency, rumbling calls that can be heard by others more than a mile away.

After a death, family members show signs of grief and exhibit ritualistic behavior. Field biologists such as Joyce Poole, who has studied Africa's elephants for more than 35 years, describe elephants trying to lift the dead body and covering it with dirt and brush. Poole once watched a female stand guard over her stillborn baby for three days, her head, ears, and trunk drooped in grief. Elephants may revisit the bones of the deceased for months, even years, touching them with their trunks and creating paths to visit the carcass.

What has amazed Sheldrick most since establishing the Nairobi nursery is how readily even severely traumatized babies begin to reweave the elaborate social fabric of the wild group. "They are born with a genetic memory and are extremely social animals," she says. "They intuitively know to be submissive before elders, and the females are instinctively maternal, even from a very young age. Whenever we get a new baby here, the others will come around and lovingly put their trunks on its back to comfort it. They have such big hearts."

Standing amid a group of orphans one afternoon as they browsed on croton tree branches, I was struck by their distinct personalities. Kalama, a female found at five weeks old in a water well in northern Samburu, was cheeky and playful. Kitirua, found abandoned at around 18 months old near a swamp in Amboseli National Park, was a recent arrival and still shy and aloof. Tano, a four-month-old suspected poaching victim from the Laikipia region of central Kenya, had become so close to the keepers that she kept pushing other orphans away out of jealousy. Yet another suspected poaching victim, Chemi Chemi, was a mischievous male elephant. "We call him al Qaeda," explained Edwin Lusichi, the nursery's head elephant keeper. "He's always shoving us and the other orphan elephants around."

It was as though I were hanging out with a group of precocious schoolkids vying to establish their standing and make an impression on the new kid on the playground. When I approached an achingly adorable two-month-old female named Sities, I soon found myself deposited in a nearby bush by the cracked-leather rump of another elephant, getting a parting stomp on my foot for good measure.

"That's Olare," Lusichi called out, gesturing toward the one-year-old that had just put me in my place. "She's practicing to be a matriarch."

When it was time to head toward the nursery stables, I positioned myself along one flank of the pachyderm procession. I'd started off toward the trees of blankets, when an elephant trunk suddenly struck my midsection with such force that I dropped to my knees.

"I forgot to warn you," Lusichi said, helping me up with a broad smile. "Tumaren doesn't like it when anyone walks ahead of her."

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