A family of orphaned baby elephants tromp through a clearing in the woods toward a muddy area cordoned off by a single yellow rope. The smallest, less than a year old, has a blanket tied to her back for warmth and security.
A large group of humans are gathered here as well, at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park, to observe the morning feeding, a daily occurrence that's open to the public. We watch as doting caretakers, Kenyan men in green jackets and rubber boots, hand-feed the baby elephants milk bottles. To them, it’s just one of the eight feedings that happen in a day, but to us, it’s a spectacle worth savoring.
Members of the hungry herd rapidly gulp down the contents of the bottles, before starting in on freshly cut branches of leaves. This adorable scene was made possible by Daphne Sheldrick, who, upon her husband’s death in 1977, founded the trust. Since baby elephants are milk-dependent until age three, the poaching of a mother has a heartbreaking ripple effect: her calf must be left behind by the herd, which means either death by starvation or predator attack.
Daphne began raising orphans at her home in Tsavo National Park, where her late husband David worked as the warden in the 60s and 70s. At the time, no one had ever successfully hand-reared infant elephants—they could not survive on cow's milk. Through a painful process of trial and error, during which she lost several calves, Daphne discovered the non-dairy formula that would save many elephants' lives to come.
Beyond the sustenance of their mothers’ milk, she observed that orphans needed the same loving bonds provided by their families in the wild. Elephants are smart, sensitive creatures who live in matriarchal groups led by the eldest female. Babies receive not only care from their mother but also a cadre of aunts and siblings.
The nursery in Nairobi is designed to provide calves with the emotional support required for them to thrive. Orphans spend their days in the forest learning how to forage for food under the watchful eye of a rotating staff of human keepers. Each man sleeps in a stable on a bunk above the elephant, keeping a close proximity for overnight feedings.
The calves often arrive traumatized, victims of poaching, drought, and human-wildlife conflict, which may include being trapped in unused water wells or speared by locals protecting their crops. It can take up to ten years for orphans to be fully rehabilitated, which happens via a special reintegration unit where they can interact with wild herds by day and still have a safe place to sleep at night.
In the 40 years since the trust was established, it's rehabilitated and returned over 200 orphan elephants to the wild. As David Sheldrick himself was always quick to point out, wild orphans are merely "on loan" until they can resume their rightful place in the natural order of things. But that doesn't make having to say goodbye any less bittersweet.