Bringing Up Big Babies

Kenyan Reserve Raises Orphaned Elephants

In the wilds of Kenya, Daphne Sheldrick runs what might be the world's most unusual orphanage. The babies under her care are bigger, and grayer, than you might expect. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports for 48 Hours Adventures.


"They have nightmares at night," says Sheldrick of her charges. "They scream and they cry."

Sheldrick is stationed at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, founded in 1977 to take in baby elephants orphaned by ivory poachers. Set up in memory of her former naturalist husband, David Sheldrick, a founder warden of Kenya's Tsavo East National Park, the shelter today protects elephants from farmers loathe to have them eat their crops.

"When they first come in, having lost their elephant family, theyÂ're completely devastated," Sheldrick says.

"You have to try and duplicate what nature would give a baby elephant," Sheldrick says. "And the first thing is a family. You study the wild elephants. You see the very close-knit wild family, the great affection that all family members have for the babies."

To stand in for the elephant family, "We have eight men working with these two baby elephants [currently in residence] so that all elephants know all the keepers and all the keepers know all the elephants," she says.

"IÂ've been just a friend of them for almost a year," says Phillip Okobe, one of the doting workers.

All day long, the young elephants get so much pampering, it seems almost silly until you realize just how fragile these big babies really are.

In their natural habitat, baby elephants would be protected underneath adults; here blankets are placed over them. "So they would be sheltered," says Sheldrick. "We have to put sun block on them every day because the ears are very fragile and susceptible to sun."

There's little doubt that elephants need love and affection just as people do. Sheldrick sees countless other parallels with human behavior.

"They play around like this because little elephants need stimulation; they need toys just like a human infant needs toys," she says. "We have to change the toys because they get bored with same things every now and then."

Tourists are allowed to stay for only about an hour every day, leaving time for the babies to have a bottle and a nap. Baby elephants require milk to survive, and Daphne SheldrickÂ's special formula has been key to her remarkable success at saving them. It took her 28 years to perfect it.

According to Okobe, the elephants are fed four times a day - about 24 pints daily. But they've got to be in the mood. So handlers get creative with blankets to duplicate the feel of a protective mama.

The wildlife trust, which ultimately releases orphaned elephants and rhinos under its care into the wild, works to further other conservation and education goals.
"Here in the nursery, we merely get them through their two most dependent years," says Sheldrick.
"When they leave here, theyÂ're slightly retarded in some respects because I canÂ't teach them how to use their trunk. I canÂ't teach them elephant language or how to behave in the wild herds," she says.

"They're a little bit traumatized by the size of the adults but they very soon feel comfortable," she adds. "They settle down and they realize that they are loved by a new family."

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