The elephant orphanage

A place where baby elephants find "surrogate mothers"


One of the reasons why Sheldrick can't just walk away was discovered 300 miles away: a two-week old baby elephant, found in terrible shape. A large female, who may or may not be his mother, was burying him; that's what elephants do with their dead. A team from the orphanage rushed down, diverted the large elephant momentarily and quickly carried the baby to their vehicle. He was flown to Nairobi and driven though town to his new home where his new "mother" is waiting.

"He's obviously a starvation victim; been without mom for a very long time," Sheldrick observed.

He was in such terrible shape that no one expects him to make it through the night. The keepers nursed him constantly and named him "Ndololo," because that's the name of the place where he was found.

To their surprise, the next morning he was up on his feet. That's when they realized something quite shocking: The little boy is blind.

"We'd never dealt with a blind calf before, but he's the magic one, you know?" Sheldrick said. "He really is a joy to us. Because we never thought he'd live."

But Daphne never permits herself too much hope. That's because she loses half the elephants that arrive here. Some die from pneumonia, others from trauma.

Some of her elephants probably witnessed their mother's death and remember everything. That's the double-edged sword of having the memory of an elephant -- they never forget.

"You know he is still grieving for his elephant family. He's in shock. He's distressed," Daphne said.

Asked if she believes an elephant can die of grief, Daphne says she is certain they can. "They're terribly, terribly fragile."

What are the signs of an elephant grieving?

"Not wanting to feed. Listless. Not want to play. Not wanting to live," she explains. "And that can be very frustrating. You've got to try and turn their psyche around, duplicating what that elephant would have had in an elephant family. Touching them. Talking to him gently."

In other words, love.

"Tender loving care. TLC -- and a lot of it," Daphne explains.

Besides TLC, the elephants need milk. That's always been the secret and the stumbling block: A baby elephant cannot live without mother's milk, and needs it for more than two years.

For more than 28 years, Daphne struggled to develop a formula that would work, and failed. All the orphans died, but then, in 1982, she finally hit on it. Since then, she has saved the lives of 74 orphaned elephants.

"When the little orphans start to play, then you know you are winning," she explains.

That's because, aside from milk, the most important weapon in winning the battle is the other elephants. After a baby's first night here, the older boys and girls are brought around to meet him. It is the central rite of passage at the orphanage -- an essential part of the therapy.

There is also subsonic speech, which we humans can't hear but which Daphne thinks goes something like, 'Hey. This place is OK. These people aren't going to hurt you. The food's good. We get to play a lot. Chill.'

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 is on probation for three months. Then, if the elephants like him, he's got a job. If not, he's out.

And the keepers try to teach the elephants.

"We have to teach them not to be naughty, not to push around with the others, to obey one another, just like you have to do to the children, your own children, and to respect the others," explains Edwin Lusichi.

The keepers also teach the elephants how to be elephants. There are wild elephant things these kids don't know how to do -- mother wasn't around to teach them. Things like covering themselves in dust to prevent sunburn. The keepers do it with shovels, until the elephants pick it up themselves.

It's actually a pretty lush life for the young elephants at the orphanage. But it's not the life of a wild elephant. It's not their destiny.

So like any good school, this place prepares its young charges to leave, to prepare for life in the real world, to go back to the wild from whence they came.

But not right away. You don't go straight from a nursery to the jungle. You need more schooling first. Therefore, the trust runs a sort of junior high school. It's a long day's drive away, in Tsavo National Park, the biggest park in Kenya.

In the park, there is a lot less supervision and a lot less milk. The elephants find most of their food themselves. There is no longer any concern about their survival. They are healthy and strong now.