email a friend iconprinter friendly iconOrphan Elephants
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Spend enough time around elephants and it's difficult not to anthropomorphize their behavior. "Elephants are very human animals," says Sheldrick, sitting one afternoon on the back porch of her house at the edge of the nursery grounds, the wide, acacia-dotted plains of Nairobi National Park sprawling in the distance. "Their emotions are exactly the same as ours. They've lost their families, have seen their mothers slaughtered, and they come here filled with aggression—devastated, broken, and grieving. They suffer from nightmares and sleeplessness."

What makes this particular moment in the fraught history of elephant-human relations so remarkable is that the long-accrued anecdotal evidence of the elephant's extraordinary intelligence is being borne out by science. Studies show that structures in the elephant brain are strikingly similar to those in humans. MRI scans of an elephant's brain suggest a large hippocampus, the component in the mammalian brain linked to memory and an important part of its limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions. The elephant brain has also been shown to possess an abundance of the specialized neurons known as spindle cells, which are thought to be associated with self-awareness, empathy, and social awareness in humans. Elephants have even passed the mirror test of self-recognition, something only humans, and some great apes and dolphins, had been known to do.

This common neurobiology has prompted some scientists to explore whether young elephants that have experienced assaults on their psyches may be exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), just like orphaned children in the wake of war or genocide. Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist and the director of the Kerulos Center in Oregon, has brought the latest insights from human neuroscience and psychology to bear on startling field observations of elephant behavior. She suspects that some threatened elephant populations might be suffering from chronic stress and trauma brought on by human encroachment and killing.

Before the international ivory trade ban in 1989, poaching took a steep toll on many elephant populations and in some instances significantly altered their social structure because poachers tended to target older elephants. Field biologists found that the number of older matriarchs, female caregivers, and bulls in vulnerable groups had fallen drastically. In Uganda, for instance, one study reported that many females between the ages of 15 and 25 had no close family members whatsoever.

In the decades since the ban, some populations have stabilized, though most elephants remain threatened by human encroachment. As poaching has flared up in the past five years in the Congo Basin and large swaths of central and eastern Africa, many elephant families there have lost most of their adult females. Where such social upheaval exists, calves are being raised by ever more inexperienced females. An increasing number of young orphaned elephants, many of which have witnessed the death of a parent through culling or at the hands of poachers, are coming of age in the absence of the traditional support system. "The loss of older elephants," says Bradshaw, "and the extreme psychological and physical trauma of witnessing the massacres of their family members interferes with a young elephant's normal development."

Bradshaw speculates that this early trauma, combined with the breakdown in social structure, may account for some instances of aberrant elephant behavior that have been reported by field biologists. Between 1992 and 1997, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa killed more than 40 rhinoceroses—an unusual level of aggression—and in some cases had attempted to mount them. The young elephants were adolescent males that had witnessed their families being shot in cullings at Kruger National Park—sanctioned killings to keep elephant populations under control. At that time it was common practice for such orphaned elephant babies to be tethered to the bodies of their dead relatives until they could be rounded up for translocation to new territories. Once moved to Pilanesberg, the orphans matured without the support of any adult males. "Young males often follow older, sexually active males around," says Joyce Poole, "appearing to study what they do. These youngsters had no such role models."

For Allan Schore, an expert on human trauma disorders at UCLA who has co-authored papers with Bradshaw, the behavior of these elephants conforms to a diagnosis of PTSD in humans. "A large body of research shows that the neurobiological mechanisms of attachment are found in many mammals, including humans and elephants," he explains. "The emotional relationship between the mother and her offspring impacts the wiring of the infants' developing brain. When early experiences are traumatic, there is a thinning down of the developing brain circuits, especially in areas that process emotional information and regulate stress. That means less resilience and an enduring deficit in aggression regulation, social communication, and empathy."

One effort to repair the torn fabric of an elephant group lends further support to the idea that early trauma and a lack of role models can lead to aggression: After Joyce Poole suggested that park rangers in South Africa introduce six older bull elephants into Pilanesberg's population of about 85 elephants, the aberrant behavior of the marauding adolescent males—and their premature hormonal changes—abruptly stopped.

If elephants can wound like us, they can heal like us as well, perhaps more readily. With humans acting as stand-ins for their mothers, along with the help of the other nursery elephants, the majority of the orphans that survive recover to become fully functional wild elephants again. To date, Sheldrick's nursery has successfully raised more than a hundred orphan elephants. They have returned to the wild in wary, halting, half measures at first, having become "homo-pachyderms," caught between a deep devotion to their human caregivers and the irresistible call of their true selves.

One evening during the dry season a huge group of wild elephants emerged from the bush to drink at the water trough at the Ithumba compound in Tsavo, one of two locations where the orphans transition to the wild. There were 25 to 30 elephants—massive, long-tusked bulls and matriarchs, adolescent males and females, some ex-orphans, and several newborn calves. Directly alongside the trough were the open-air stockades where the Ithumba orphans had already gathered for the night, staring over at their wild counterparts, which, between sips, stared back. The keepers and I were standing no more than 30 yards from the wild group, much closer than one usually would get. And the elephants were much closer to humans than wild ones normally venture. The dreamlike scene was dictated by the presence of the orphans and their conversations with the wild group. "They have let the wild ones know it is OK," explained Benjamin Kyalo, Ithumba's head elephant keeper. "The word is clearly being spread around Tsavo: Good humans. Good water. Let's go!"

By day the keepers lead the orphans into the bush to browse. They deliver midday bottles of formula at a designated mud-bath venue. When a cluster of wild elephant heads appears in the distance, the keepers keep the milk-dependent orphans close, not allowing them to leave with the group. But by the age of five or seven, the orphans may go off with the wild ones. Some will stay out for a few nights before returning to the stockades, as though they'd been away at a sleepover. Some will go for good, becoming full-fledged members of their own wild families.

One orphan named Loijuk was so eager to join a wild group that she twice opened the Ithumba gate with her trunk and let herself out. Months after the second breakout she had become a member of a wild ex-orphan group. Another precocious orphan named Irima was just over three years old and still milk dependent when he insinuated himself into a wild group near Voi, the other stockade where orphans are introduced to the wild. After five days the Voi keepers heard a series of frantic, high-pitched elephant trumpets coming from the direction of an electrified fence. "Irima must have told the group that he still needed his milk and orphan family and wanted to go back, so Edo [a former orphan] escorted him home," Voi's head keeper, Joseph Sauni, recalls. "The keepers opened the gate, and Edo escorted Irima all the way back to the stockades. Edo drank some water from the well, ate some food, and took off again. Mission accomplished."

Even fully "repatriated" orphans like Edo will return to the stockades to visit their human family. In December 2008 Emily, a matriarch that had been brought to the Nairobi nursery in 1993, showed up at the Voi stockades one afternoon with her group and a surprise guest. "She'd given birth the day before, about a mile away," says Sauni. "She led the baby here to show us her newborn. We named her Eve."

Back at the Nairobi nursery the baby elephants return for their six o'clock feeding, breaking into a full sprint once they see the line of keepers holding up huge bottles of milk before each of the stables. A major ruckus ensues when they arrive—some stable assignments have changed to make room for a new arrival, and elephants hate alterations to their routine. The nursery's most veteran keeper, Mishak Nzimbi—known as the "elephant whisperer" and the clear favorite of all the orphans—steps into the fray. Heeding little more than an upheld hand and one stern utterance, the residents settle into place, sucking down gallons of formula in seconds.

"The control the keepers have over these elephants, without even a stick or anything!" marvels Daphne's younger daughter, Angela, the current executive director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. "It all stems from the elephants' desire to please someone they love. It's amazing and beautiful to see. With elephants you reap what you sow, and the way you get the most out of them is through love."

We walk over to the stable marked Murka—the orphan that had been found with a spear lodged in her head. "Now look at her," Daphne says, as Murka, with only the slightest indent in her forehead to show for her brutal ordeal, approaches the half-opened door of her stable and takes two of my fingers to suckle on. "The vets didn't expect her to make it through the first night."

"And she's healed psychologically," Angela adds. "She was one extremely traumatized little elephant when she first woke up, lashing out at everyone—and rightly so. But slowly she began to trust again, and after about a month she wasn't just fine about people, she was seeking them out. And it wasn't just our doing. She would never have recovered so quickly without the input of other elephants."

All around us orphans and keepers are settling in for the night. Each elephant sleeps with a different keeper every night to prevent it from getting too attached to a particular person—and perhaps vice versa. Leaning on the stable door, Nzimbi, Murka's overseer for the night, recalls first visiting the nursery 22 years earlier. He immediately asked Daphne for a job. "I understand these animals," he says. "I love them so much."

Directly above Murka's straw-and-blanket bed is Nzimbi's bunk, with a small radio perched by his pillow. I ask if he has an alarm clock to wake him for the elephants' feedings.

"Oh no," he says. "Every three hours you feel a trunk reach up and pull your blankets off. The elephants are our alarms."

Charles Siebert wrote about efforts to preserve the diversity of our food supply in the July issue. Michael Nichols is an editor at large for the magazine. His upcoming elephant book is Earth to Sky.
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