A place of hope amid the elephant poaching crisis

(CBS News) NAIROBI, Kenya -- There is an elephant poaching crisis in Africa: 25,000 are killed a year.

There is, however, one place of hope near Nairobi.

The orphaned elephants there are getting a second chance at life thanks to their "foster mother," Dame Daphne Sheldrick.

"We try to replicate what that baby elephant would have had in the wild, the most important being a family," Sheldrick said.

Sheldrick has lived among elephants for nearly 60 years and started the orphanage in the 1970s when poaching elephants for their tusks became an international crisis.

Over the years, she's discovered elephants share many traits with humans: A long life span, mourning of their dead, and strong family bonds. That's led to new techniques for raising elephants in captivity.

"So we have a team of keepers that represent the elephant family that they've lost. And here in the nursery, the keepers and the attendants are with the little orphans 24 hours a day, because a baby elephant in a natural situation would never ever be left on its own and all the family care for that baby," Sheldrick said.

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Today, elephants are under attack again, by criminal gangs of poachers. For Sheldrick, it cuts deeply.

"I've raised over 150 infants thru the nursery here. We've lost our own orphans to poaching; one named Sellengay just the other day. And we raised that orphan from one week old. It's like losing a family member," Sheldrick said.

Sheldrick's latest adoptee is one-year-old Quanza.

Her mother and two sisters were gunned down near a National Park, and Sheldrick's staff was called in to help. The baby was in severe shock, and would not feed. Quanza was stabilized by veterinarians -- then airlifted back to the orphanage.

Sheldrick says it's difficult to get traumatized elephants to accept food from humans. So it was a big moment when Quanza took milk from a bottle for the first time.

The human touch is crucial, but Sheldrick told us Quanza's fellow orphans are just as important.

"They communicate telepathically, and she will be able to take her cue from them. And they will be comforting her. The ones that are established here understand her predicament, and they will comfort her," Sheldrick said.

Qwanza won't be released back to the wild for ten years, but if that happens, she would be Sheldrick graduate number 198. That's a record made possible by her caretakers, human and otherwise.

  • M. Sanjayan

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