A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

A Day with Orphan Elephants

Our visit to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya

Leslie Smith at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage

Suguta was way too young to be on her own. Her mother had been trapped and killed by poachers, so at only 3 months old, she was wandering the forest alone. When tribesmen from the Maralal region spotted her, the emaciated calf was trying in vain to suck up water from a muddy puddle.

The young elephant was so desperate for food, water, and companionship that she simply followed the men – as best her weak body would allow – to the wildlife ranger station. By the time rescuers arrived from the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, they weren’t even sure they could keep her alive for the flight back to the orphanage.

I had read Suguta’s story, and many others like hers, before we’d planned the trip to the elephant orphanage. Still, neither my husband Mike nor I were sure what to expect. We arrived at Tsavo National Park in Kenya, early one chilly morning. Along with other visitors, we were directed up a winding road to the orphanage grounds, and there the group of us stood behind a loose rope, cautious spectators. We stared at each other and waited.

Finally, one by one, baby elephants came bounding out of the misty forest and into the light of the golden African sun. With an almost awkward, childlike innocence, they tottered toward us, faded blankets on their backs like school uniforms. (The blankets keep them warm at night and protect from the sun during the day.) Mike and I watched, transfixed, as they took their places just feet from us in the feeding area.

For every baby, a keeper stood prepared with a full three gallons of milk. Unfazed by the rapt audience, the calves wasted no time beginning to suckle.

From rescue to rehoming

Dame Daphne Sheldrick, a lifelong conservationist, established the refuge in 1977 in memory of her husband, David, the founder warden of Tsavo East National Park.

Since then, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has rescued, rehabilitated and rehomed over 80 orphaned elephants and rhinos back into the wild. Like Suguta’s, each story is at once unbelievably heartbreaking and impossibly hopeful.

Poaching is still rampant throughout the African continent. Snares – literally wire nooses – are set up near watering holes and food sources, trapping nearly 20,000 animals a year. Death by snare is slow and agonizing, sometimes completely severing limb from body. These devices not only steal the lives of adult elephants, but of their orphaned young who are left to starve or succumb to hunters and poachers. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust not only rescues the victims, but funds several de-snaring operations as well.

Thanks to a random and temporary park entrance fee hike on the day we were there, many would-be visitors opted not to go in. The few of us who paid the extra charge to enter were well rewarded. “There aren’t very many of you,” said one of the keepers, and he lowered the rope. “Come in.”

Within moments, one of the smaller calves had sidled up to me and was surveying my jacket pocket with her trunk. The sensation was so exhilarating, my state of mind so delirious, I’m still surprised I didn’t pass out!

Soon, humans and elephants were meeting and greeting each other like a giddy family reunion gone inter-species. At one point, a keeper tossed a soccer ball into the crowd and the babies chased and kicked it. They ran around exuberantly, collapsing on each other in jubilant piles. I ran with them, giggling at every swing of a trunk.

A typical soccer game at the elephant orphanage

I have no idea if the revelry lasted 20 minutes or two hours – only that when it was over, and one of the keepers announced that we were invited back to the refuge at nightfall, there was no question about what our plans for the evening would entail.

We learned that for the price of “fostering” an elephant, visitors can reserve their spot at dusk and help tuck in the animals for the night. (Apparently no amount of money could buy a night in bed with them, so we settled for the tuck-in option.) We decided to foster Sinya, a young female who’d arrived some weeks earlier.

At evening, we returned to Sheldrick, this time greeted by the resident male rhino just coming home for the night. Humans were guided to the elephants’ sleeping quarters and the adolescents were led in shortly after. One of the keepers pointed out our new foster child, Sinya.

As each one was coaxed to his or her hut, we said good night and caressed their trunks. We stroked their ears and marveled at the soul in their eyes. Like teenagers, some were feisty, clearly not ready for the day to end; others seemed weary, grateful for rest and the chance to recharge. The night proved bittersweet – I didn’t know when or if I’d ever return.

Now back at home, I often think of the keepers. Each morning they lead their charges through the forest – it’s part of the process of familiarizing the calves with their natural habitats. On any given day, however, an elephant may decide to join a local herd and remain in the forest for good. And of course, that’s the ultimate goal. But I’m sure that sometimes it’s hard for their caregivers to say goodbye.

Suguta, the baby elephant who nearly starved to death, today is thriving. She’s emerged as a calming presence among her fellow orphans and many of the newer calves look to her for protection. In time, she will re-integrate back into the wild and keepers will take comfort in the fact that this is how it should be. For now, there are always newcomers.