Unnamed Road, Nairobi, Kenya
A must for anyone visiting Nairobi should be a stop at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, or elephant orphanage, in the Nairobi National Park. The Trust, which was established by Dame Daphne Sheldrick in honor of her husband David, the founding warden of Tsavo National Park, allows small groups during visiting hours. To see the baby elephants (and rhino) being given bottles of milk is a very special experience. My daughter fell particularly hard for Maalim, a baby rhino who arrived at the orphanage only two days old (weighing 25 kilos) and at two months, weighed what most newborn rhinos weigh 40 kilos. The size of a medium, but very stocky, dog, he resembled E.T. but nuzzled up against the kids and loved being patted behind his ears. You will leave with a greater appreciation for the species, an understanding of their endangerment—possibly even an adopted pet.
Once a day for an hour (12 to 1p.m.) visitors can come to the orphanage to see the babies when they have come in from the neighboring national park for feeding. The orphanage’s aim is to rear the elephants so they grow up “psychologically sound” and able to adapt to elephant society back in the wild. Since elephants are extremely family-oriented creatures, each orphan is assigned a “family”, or keeper who stays with the baby at all times, even sleeping with it during the night. As Dame Daphne explained, “It’s taken me 28 years to get everything right. It’s not just the milk formula, it’s also the care, the husbandry and dealing with the problems they have—they’re very fragile animals. They also need psychological help until they’re comfortable amongst the wild herds. It’s not a question of taking an elephant and dumping it in the bush. They’ve actually got to make friends, find the elephant friends more interesting than their human family, and gradually make the transition. To begin, they stay with us and we expose them to wild situations. Then they decide to be elephants and to visit us. But elephants never forget, so they will always harbor love for their human families.”
The keepers will introduce you to their young and give them their bottles. Just like human babies, the emotions of these animals are expressed without language but are very evident. Some are more playful. Others shy. Each is named and you can learn their stories in materials on hand at the end of the visit. You will also learn that 30 years ago there were 3 million healthy elephants in Africa, but now there are fewer than 400,000.
Staff will explain the history of the nursery and the process of reintroducing the animals to the wild. Since 1987, Daphne and her team at the sanctuary have successfully “hand-reared” more than 85 newborn and very young elephant orphans. They have also raised rhinos, warthogs and baboons, which you may see. In addition, the Trust publicizes the plight of the species and champions preservation and conservation causes. The nursery is run by Dame Daphne, her daughter, Angela and her husband, Robert Carr-Hartley.
Indagare Tip: If you have adopted an elephant, which you can do online in advance, it is possible to arrange to visit your foster pet at dusk when the animals all come from their park adventures for feeding. We were able to visit this way and were the only people there with the staff when the elephants came in. We had ample time with the blind rhino, Maxwell, as well as the baby rhino, Maalim, while we waited and then got to see the elephants fed in their stalls, where they sleep with their keepers.
Written by Melissa Biggs Bradley