Elephant Babies at the David Sheldrick Trust

A line of the cutest baby elephants comes running towards me from out of the brush.  With huge ears flapping, they race down the slope like a bunch of toddlers excited to see what Santa has brought.  Weaving amongst them are an equal number of men dressed all in green.  On reaching the bottom of the slope, each elephant nudges his/her attendant until he produces a scaled-up version of a baby’s bottle.  The milk disappears quickly, and then it’s time to play!

David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage Sign

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

The centre in Nairobi is the location of their world-famous Orphan Elephant Nursery.  The centre opens for just one hour each day, in order to allow the elephants time to be elephants without the distraction of a bunch of tourists and their cameras. After all, although education is an important part of the trust’s work, its primary focus is the elephants and not their human admirers.

The nursery is only the first stage in the process of reintroducing these orphaned young elephants to the wild.  Further centres in Tsavo National Park are a natural progression towards independence and joining a wild herd.

Elephant orphan baby drinking milk with her keeper at David Sheldrick Trust in Nairobi.Elephant Feeding Time

11am is the start of the morning feeding time for the baby elephants.  Just like many human babies, this involves a bottle of milk.  It’s a little scaled up of course!
The Trust have pioneered the use of a special milk formulation that gives the baby elephants the best possible start in life.
The orphans are reliant, at least in part, on this bottled milk for at least the first four years of their lives.

Watching the babies gulp down their milk is an adorable sight.  Some of the greedier elephants headbutt their keepers in an attempt to convince them to provide another bottle.  The keepers treat this behaviour as you would a naughty child – a tap on the trunk, a light shove to the side of the head, and a firm but gentle admonition.

Elephant Playtime

Elephant mud bath at David Sheldrick Trust, Nairobi Elephant playing in the dirt at David Sheldrick Trust, Nairobi Elephant playing in the dirt at David Sheldrick Trust, Nairobi

Once the milk has all been drunk, it’s time to play. Just like human children, elephant babies love to get dirty!

Actually, this play in the dirt and in the mud bath serves a very practical purpose.  It’s a great way for the babies to cool down, to condition their skin (think mud pack!), and provides UV protection (sunscreen for elephants).  Of course, it’s great fun too!

I watched as the elephants slid into the water like children down a flume at the water park.  It seemed much easier to get in than to get out as the little ones struggled to get purchase on the slippery mud of the banks and repeatedly slid back into the water with a splash.  Possibly it didn’t help that the elephants seemed to enjoy thwarting one another’s attempts by squirting water and jumping on top of each other.

Being an onlooker wasn’t without its dangers.  These cheeky babies loved sending a sly trunkful of water in the direction of spectators, and clouds of dust enveloped everyone as the elephants rolled in the dry dirt close to the rope perimeter.  One particularly persistent young male enjoyed trying to ‘sneak’ (ever seen an elephant do anything subtle?) under the rope to join the visitors.

Elephants fighting over a hosepipe at David Sheldrick Trust, NairobiAs there hadn’t been a lot of rain recently (being towards the end of the dry season), the keepers were employing a hose pipe to keep the mud bath topped up with water.  However, it wasn’t long before a troublesome pair of babies discovered the cool water emanating from the pipe.  Subsequently, they began a very gentle, very loving fight over the pipe.  First one elephant would drink, then the other would pull on the hose and steal refreshment.  At one point, the hose was in one elephant’s mouth and the other elephant, obviously impatient for a drink, simply put her trunk into her companion’s mouth, sucked the water into her nostrils, and then squirted it into her own mouth.

Adopting an Elephant

Yes, you can adopt one of these adorable babies.
No, that doesn’t mean smuggling it through airport security and setting up a mud bath in your back garden!

Adopting Dupotto the elephant at David Sheldrick Trust, NairobiAfter my hour with the elephants, how could I resist taking things a step further?  For a minimum donation of $50 a year, you can choose a baby to adopt.  You receive an information card about ‘your’ elephant, a certificate, and a beautiful watercolour print.  In addition, adoption gives you the opportunity to visit the centre in the evening (by prior arrangement) to see the elephants being tucked into bed with their keepers.  Also, you are permitted to visit the reintroduction centres in Tsavo National Park, which are usually closed to the public.

It doesn’t stop there.  As a sponsor, you receive email updates each month regarding the work of the Trust.  Included is a link to the ‘Keepers Diary’ where you can read some wonderfully detailed descriptions of the fun and games that your adopted elephant has been up to each day.  There’s lots of photographs for you and a digital image of another watercolour every month.

More about the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

The Trust does an incredible amount of work across a range of projects, from the nursery in Nairobi to the reintroduction centres at Tsavo, and from anti-poaching patrols and initiatives to conservation and education. All of this is beyond the scope of my little blog post, but their website is extensive and an absolute wealth of information and stunning photographs.

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  1. Hi Sarah,

    Now I really want to adopt one of those adorable little elephants! I would also have so much fun playing with them and feeding. Thank you for this post!


  2. Love this post. I actually have a shirt that says Elephants make me happy so this post made me really happy. So glad the nursery only allows visitors for an hour, to allow the elephants to just be elephants. And adopting an elephant for $50 a year seems like such a great idea. I want to go to Nairobi and explore this place too!! Thanks!

  3. OMG totally adorable! I have a thing for elephants – I think I have like 3 t-shirts with elephants on them :). This looks like a great program well worth checking out.

  4. This was the perfect way to start my morning! Omg, they’re so so cute! I love that you included the adopt an elephant option , it’s so important to support nurseries like these in Nairobi! Great post !

  5. This 1 hour open per day rule is one I’ve never heard before, but it’s great they think of the elephant’s instead of the tourists’ needs! Those little guys are so cute, I probably couldn’t help but adopt one either if I visited. 🙂 We had one close encounter with elephants as well, at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We were there for an entire day, learning about the park, the elephants, and their hard lives. Those elephants are rescued from tree logging and doing tricks for tourists. We fed them and washed them, but apart from that, we just let them be elephants. Unfortunately they can’t be introduced back to the wild, as they’ve always lived in captivity. Glad they can live their life being a regular and happy elephant at the sanctuary though!

    1. Wow. I’d love to visit the Chiang Mai Elephant Park. I think the difference with the Nairobi nursery (and the reason it’s only open for an hour a day) is that the elephants are going to be reintroduced to the wild when they are older so they need to learn all the ‘natural’ skills. It’s important for them to get plenty of ‘elephant time’ out in the bush so they learn to be proper little elephants. I guess the rescued captive elephants don’t need those skills so much so it’s great that they’re getting looked after. Tourist money can really help these projects when it’s done in the right way.

  6. Oh I love the ethics behind this! I always feel so torn visiting zoos, but Evie loves seeing the animals. This form of rehabilitation and protecting species is what we need more of! Thanks for sharing. I will definitely keep this in mind. Pinning!

    1. It’s a great way of getting to see animals without the ethical issues of zoos etc. Do check out http://guttertoglobe.com/giraffe-centre/ as well (another rehabilitation and conservation project that is working to help the endangered Rothschild giraffes). It’s amazing to get up close to these animals without feeling guilty about benefiting from the experience.

  7. I HAD to share this on my FB account. My sister is obsessed with elephants and is trying to plan a vacation where she can experience these animals. I’m adding this to my Africa bucket list agenda as well!

    1. I think your sister would love the place. If she ‘adopts’ one of the babies then she can go in the evening as well (normally that means you’re the only ‘tourist’ at the centre) and that’s a seriously adorable experience. And, if she has time, she can go out to the rehabilitation centres in Tsavo to see the next step of reintroduction. Definitely think it’s a great itinerary for an elephant lover. Tsavo has some of the biggest wild elephants alive and adding a safari to see those would be the ultimate.

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