Poachers Leaving Elephant Orphans

<b>60 Minutes:</b> Special Elephant Orphanage Cares For Poachers' Youngest Victims

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

This story was first broadcast on Dec. 21, 2008. It was updated on April 23, 2009.

Can you imagine an orphanage that's a happy place? 60 Minutes couldn't, but then we found one. The kids don't arrive here smiling. Like orphans all over the world, they've been abandoned. They're hungry, sad and desperate. But after a few years, they're healthy, well-fed and happy.

As correspondent Bob Simon reports, this orphanage is for elephants, located outside Nairobi, Kenya. They've been orphaned because their parents - their mothers mainly - have died, or more likely, been killed in the bush.

Poachers kill large elephants for their ivory. A young elephant can only survive a day or two without milk. So, the orphanage's first job is to find the orphans, fly them to the orphanage, and, before anything else, feed them.

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

"This is little Saguta. This is the one that was in a coma," she told Simon. "When she arrived, was on a drip for 24 hours. We never thought she'd be alive in the morning. So she's our little miracle, this one."

But Daphne's problem is that she is caring for too many miracles: poachers are killing more and more elephants for their tusks, and in the process creating more and more orphans.

There are a record number of orphans at the orphanage right now because Daphne says the sale of ivory has been legalized for the first time in ten years. A few African countries have been given the right to sell their stockpiles - more than 100 tons of tusks to China and Japan - and conservationists point out that this is yet another blow to the elephants.

Asked if she sees any correlation between the decision to auction off the ivory and the number of orphans, Daphne said, "We do. Every time ivory is auctioned legally, there's a rise in poaching. And we also see the correlation in the price that's paid to the poacher for illegal ivory."

And that price has gone up. "It's gone from 300 shillings a kilo to 5,000," she explained.

That's about $1,000 a tusk here in Kenya, where the sale of any ivory is still prohibited. Yet the number of elephants killed by poachers this year has increased by 45 percent.

Daphne says it's a scary, frightening rise.

Poachers were behind the death of one elephant whose trunk was caught in one of their snares and she had no way of feeding herself or her six-week-old baby boy. He just couldn't accept the fact that his mother was dead, so he continued trying to suckle. Eventually the keepers got him to drink their milk. They called him Shimba. He was in such bad shape that nobody thought he would survive.

But then Shimba was brought to the orphanage and things started going his way. He's 27 months old now, and he's in very good shape. He's very strong, very muscular, and his tusks are beginning to grow. He never stops eating.

In fact, that is the first love of every one of Dame Daphne's orphans - eating.

The institution has a dining area and that's not all: as 60 Minutes found out when we first dropped by three years ago, it has everything you'd want in an orphanage. There are dormitories - each orphan has a private room. There is also a communal bath and a playground. 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.

Ultimately, Daphne finds elephants more sympathetic than people.

Asked what the most extraordinary things is she has learned about elephants, she told Simon, "Their tremendous capacity for caring is, I think, perhaps the most amazing thing about them, even at a very, very young age. Their sort of forgiveness, unselfishness. So you know, I often say as I think I've said before, they have all the best attributes of us humans and not very many of the bad."