The Elephant Orphanage

A Place Where Baby Elephants Find "Surrogate Mothers"

This story originally aired on April 9, 2006.

Stories about an orphanage are bound to yank at your heartstrings. The one 60 Minutes is going to tell you about is no exception — even though many alumni of the orphanage have gone on to lead full and happy lives.

All these orphans are from East Africa. They were all abandoned when they were very young, less than two years old — and they're all elephants. As correspondent Bob Simon reports, this orphanage is in Kenya, near Nairobi. It has been around almost 30 years. It's a large place. It would have to be.



It has just about everything you would want in an orphanage: dormitories — each orphan has a private room. There is a communal bath, a playground, and a dining area. There are as many as 14 orphans here at any one time and they stay a number of years before going back to the bush. The regimen at the orphanage is anything but Dickensian. Unlike Oliver Twist, when one of these orphans asks for more, that's what he gets. More.

The principal, headmistress, head nurse and CEO of the orphanage is Dame Daphne Sheldrick. She founded the place and has been working with elephants for 50 years.

What is the most extraordinary thing she has learned about elephants?

"Their tremendous capacity for caring is I think perhaps the most amazing thing about them," says Dame Daphne. "Even at a very, very young age. Their sort of forgiveness, unselfishness — they have all the best attributes of us humans and not very many of the bad."

Just about the best people you've ever met are the gentle men who work here.

They are called keepers, and they have extraordinary jobs. There is one keeper per elephant; he spends 24 hours a day with his charge, seven days a week. A keeper feeds his elephant every three hours, day and night, just like mom would.

He keeps his elephant warm, not like mom would, but with a blanket. When it's sleep time, the keeper beds down right next to his elephant. If he leaves, if ever so briefly, the baby wakes up and broadcasts his displeasure. The keepers are rotated now and then so that no elephant gets too terribly attached to any one of them.

At dawn, the elephants are taken from their dorms out to the bush. They hang out for a while and even play some games — soccer is a favorite. The elephants decide when it's halftime by trotting off the field for a break.

The days are pretty much the same here. But on Fridays, the orphanage becomes a spa, when the keepers give the elephants a coconut oil massage.

"We can't do exactly what the mother can do, but we do something close to that," explains Edwin Lusichi, the head of the keepers.

Meeting an elephant for the first time requires a proper introduction, as Simon learned when he visited the orphanage. There is a protocol to meeting an elephant. He will offer up his trunk, and he expects you to blow in it. That way, he will remember your scent forever. You will never be strangers again.

The orphanage gets distress calls from all over Kenya — and from all over East Africa — that a baby elephant is on his own, often because his mother has been killed by a poacher. It is then a matter of great urgency: An orphaned elephant can only survive a few days without his mother.

The baby elephant is loaded onto a plane and flown back to Daphne Sheldrick's orphanage outside Nairobi, where he'll stay until he's strong enough to go back into the bush.

Dame Daphne, who was just named a dame by Queen Elizabeth II, has been running the orphanage for almost 30 years. She was born and raised in Kenya and married David Sheldrick, Africa's leading crusader against poaching.

When he died in 1977, she founded the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Back then, there were about 100,000 elephants in Kenya. Now there are about a quarter as many — largely due to poachers. Then, as now, the ivory from their tusks is a very valuable commodity. From the beginning, Daphne saw her mission as saving as many elephants as possible.

"It's really lovely to see them now and then to think back how they were when they came in. It makes it all so worthwhile," says Daphne.

But her mission hasn't always gone smoothly. Twelve years ago, she was badly injured by a wild elephant and couldn't walk for 15 months.

Asked if during those 15 months she ever thought that maybe she should do something else, Dame Daphne says, "Oh, no. I mean, I still had all the elephants. Never occurred to me at all. You know, you can't just walk away from it."

  • Daniel Schorn

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