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Poachers Leaving Elephant Orphans

The Orphanage
The Orphanage 25:26

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."

Just about the best people you've ever met are the gentle men who work at the orphanage. Keepers, they're called, and they have extraordinary jobs. There's one keeper per elephant. He'll spend 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. And when it's sleep time, he 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 awhile, play some games; soccer is a favorite.

They days are pretty much the same there, 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 can do something close to that," explained Edwin Lusichi, the head of the keepers. He is the chief elephant man.

"This one here is Lualeni. Lualeni is the oldest female we have, 16 months as well. The tiny one here is Makena," he told Simon. "Always want to be close with Lualeni."

"Yes. Well, they always want to be close to each other and to you, don't they? I'm afraid this interview with Edwin is getting rudely interrupted," Simon remarked.

"Yes," Lusichi replied.

"But there's really not that much to do. They may be little, they may be orphans, but trust me... they're not as little as they look. In fact, I feel like I'm in an elephant sandwich," Simon commented, standing between two elephants.

Perhaps the problem was Simon and the elephants had not been properly introduced. There's 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, 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 its mother. The baby elephant is loaded on to a plane and flown back to Daphne Sheldrick's orphanage, where he'll stay until he's strong enough to go back into the bush.

Dame Daphne 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.

Daphne saw her mission as saving as many elephants as possible. But she has never permitted herself too much hope. That's because she loses half the elephants that arrive at the orphanage - some from pneumonia, some from trauma. One of the elephants probably witnessed its mother's death and remembers everything.

That's the double-edged sword of having the memory of an elephant: They never forget. "You know, he's still grieving for his elephant family, he's in shock. He's distressed," she explained.

She also said a baby elephant can actually die of grief. "They're terribly, terribly fragile. You've got to try and turn the psyche around, duplicating what that elephant would have had in an elephant family. Touching them, talking to them gently."

"In other words, love?" Simon asked.

"Tender loving care. TLC, and a lot of it," she replied.

Daphne and the keepers may run this place officially, but it's the elephants who are really in charge. For example, when a new keeper is hired, he's on probation for three months. Then, if the elephants like him, he's got a job. If not, he's out.

Asked what he tries to teach one of the elephants, head keeper Edward Lusichi said, "Well, we have to teach them not to be naughty and not to push around with the others. To obey one another, just like you have to do with children, your own children, to respect the others."

And the keepers teach the elephants how to be elephants. There are wild elephant things these kids don't know how to do, since their mother wasn't around to teach them. It's things like covering themselves in dust to prevent sunburn; the keepers do it with shovels until the elephants pick it up themselves.

The orphanage has an infirmary and the doctor had a call to make when Simon visited. One of the elephants was not doing well at all. He had been on antibiotics for two days but could barely breathe.

The elephant's room looked like an intensive care unit. The doctor, Daphne and the keepers didn't leave him for a minute. They did everything they could, but it wasn't enough. By dawn, he was dead.

"How do you manage going through this all the time?" Simon asked.

"Well, you don't have much option, do you? There's another one to look after, and then another one coming, and, you know, you just have to turn the page," Daphne replied.

"And you get attached after one..." Simon commented.

"But I'm not very good at it," she admitted.

"And you're not going to get any better, are you?" Simon asked.

"No, not after 50 years," Daphne replied.

But when she goes out to the other orphans who are doing so well, Daphne did say it brings joy to her life.

It's actually a pretty lush life for these elephants at the orphanage, but it's nothing like a wild elephant. It's not their destiny. So like any good school, this place prepares its students to leave, to get ready for life in the real world, to go back to the wild from whence they came.

Ten years ago, one young female elephant left Daphne's orphanage to go live in the wild. Her name is Mpenzi, and a couple of years ago she became pregnant and decided to go off on her own to give birth, without the protection of her extended family. That was a mistake. Before the sun could set, Mpenzi and her baby were surrounded by a pride of 16 lions.

Keeper Joseph Sauni was called to the scene and captured the events on his still camera. "Mpenzi was standing there, trying to scare off lions with her trunk. But when they came, she tried to push them on this side. Others came from the back. So, she could not do anything," he recalled.

Sauni said Mpenzi didn't have a chance. Asked what was going through his mind while this was happening, he told Simon, "That was so sad. Everybody was crying."

And there was nothing they could do to save the baby. It was a brutal lesson for Mpenzi. Nature has its own laws, and they are a long way from the sheltered world of the orphanage. But this story has a happy ending: just days before 60 Minutes arrived, Mpenzi gave birth to another little girl. The keepers have all come out to cheer her on. They named her A Sante, which in Swahili means, "thank you."

Mpenzi has learned her lesson. This time she makes sure her bundle of joy is surrounded by other members of the family. They help her up when she falls down and rescue her when she tumbles into a mud hole.

So for the moment A Sante will be safe, at least until she grows tusks.

So many elephants are being poached for their tusks that in the four months since we broadcast this story, 16 orphaned elephants have arrived at the orphanage. And Dame Daphne is expecting more.

Produced by Michael Gavshon

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