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!
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.
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.
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.
As 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!
After 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.