NAIROBI, Kenya—It was October, 2014 on the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya when a tourist saw a horrific sight on the plain.
A herd of elephants surrounded a downed female with a poisoned spear wound in her cheek, her face cut open, and her two tusks missing. The elephants mourned their family member—especially a tiny, 10-month old calf crying over her mother and resting her trunk on her belly.
When the team at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which abuts Nairobi National Park, found out about the newly orphaned baby, they knew they had to rescue the calf, as she would die of starvation without her mother’s milk. They went into action, flying into the park, separating the calf from the herd, and taking her back to their center.
There, she was welcomed by more than two dozen other orphaned baby elephants and the staff named her "Roi."
“They could have seen their mother killed before their eyes,” Rob Brandford, executive director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, said of the orphans. “They’re completely lost. They don't know what's happened, they don't know where they are.”
The wildlife trust was founded in 1977 by Dame Daphne Sheldrick in honor of her late husband, David. The founding warden of the 500-square-mile Tsavo East National Park, he dedicated his life to anti-poaching initiatives and hand-raising orphaned animals. In the nearly 40 years since it opened, the trust has rescued and rehabilitated more than 190 elephants—95 of which have been fully reintegrated back into the wild—and 17 black rhinos.
Around the time they turn three, the orphans are moved out of the Nairobi center and into Tsavo East National Park, which is also in Kenya. There, they spend the day interacting with wild elephants. It takes about five years for them to finally join a herd for life.
“It would be futile if we rescued orphaned elephants and just put them back into the wild knowing as we do about how bad poaching is and human-wildlife conflict,” Brandford said.
These pervasive problems are why the wildlife trust also has nine anti-poaching teams composed of trained rangers that track and patrol parks for signs of poaching, bush meat hunting, or snares. Since 1999, they’ve removed 150,000 snares and arrested more than 1,000 poachers.
These teams work with the trust’s aerial surveillance unit, which patrols the parks from the sky in search of poachers. Should they find an injured animal—many are hit by poisoned arrows and spears—they call the trust’s mobile veterinary team.
The accepted statistic in the conservation community is that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes, which works out to about 96 a day or 35,000 a year. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) there were more than 1.3 million African elephants in 1979, now there maybe as few as 400,000.
This cycle of violence creates a lot of orphaned animals and the trust’s orphan program is what garners the most attention.
During lunch time, the public is invited to visit the center and see the 30 or so baby elephants feed from bottles and play. Some grab their friends’ tails for comfort, others are naughty and try to steal their neighbor’s bottle, and the curious blow bubbles into a mud hole with their trunks. The older, headstrong ones push against the keepers to try and hold onto their bottles all by themselves with their trunks.
“It’s a huge range of character, exactly like if you went into a playground or a schoolyard and you would see all the children,” Brandford said. “They’ve all got their little quirks and mannerisms, it really is no different at the nursery.”
At the nursery, a team of male keepers in their signature green coats stay with the elephants 24 hours a day as they need to be fed every three hours. At night, the keepers tuck the babies into a soft bed with a blanket before going to sleep themselves in a bunk in the elephant stalls.
Celebrities have come to the aid of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, including actresses Kristin Davis and Lupita Nyong’o. Davis first got involved with the trust in 2009 when she was traveling through the Chyulu Hills and found a baby elephant wandering alone. No one is sure if she was orphaned as a result of poaching or a drought that was impacting the area, but it was clear that she was without a family. Named Chaimu, she was taken to the nursery and has since graduated to Tsavo.
Davis has since served as a patron of the trust and touted its cause.
“I still talk to people and their faces are shocked when I tell them that elephants could be extinct by 2020,” Davis said. “People need to know. If people know that we’re going to leave a world to our children that has no wild elephants in it, no wild rhinos, it’s just not acceptable and I think that people will start to take action."
With more funding the nonprofit could revive its radio initiative, where keepers go onto shows to talk about the plight of elephants and how the public can help.
In recent years, Kenya has been steadfast in its anti-poaching initiatives, including hosting the world’s largest ivory burn in April. Brandford said that usually, most of the nursery is filled with calves orphaned as a result of poaching—like little Roi was two years ago.
Today, the numbers are shifting somewhat towards human-wildlife conflict, accidents like falling into wells, or mothers that die of natural causes. Kenya’s rural communities have a love-hate relationship with elephants, as herds walking through villages can destroy up to a year’s worth of crops.
One orphan, Mbegu, was reported to the trust when a village was stoning and spearing the 7-week-old. She was separated from her family when the herd stampeded through the village, which was already mourning the death of a villager by an elephant. The trust was able to work with other nonprofits to convince the villagers to not kill Mbegu in retaliation and turn her over into their care.
Also, the trust is educating villagers to improve their wells, which are large enough for a baby elephant to fall into when the herd is drinking from it. Around 60,000 schoolchildren come through the center every year.
“Daphne did not think we would be where we are today—she felt she wanted to just retain David’s legacy,” Brandford said of the four decades of work the trust has accomplished. “Now, we’re the organization that we are today.”
The public is invited to foster an elephant for $50 a year to help continue the trust’s mission. Foster parents are invited to come at 5 p.m. to tuck in the elephants for bedtime—an activity not open to the public—as well as visits to Tsavo. For those far away, they can still enjoy a water painting by Angela Sheldrick, daughter of Daphne and David, as well as monthly updates from keepers.
Christiana Lilly is a full-time freelance journalist based out of South Florida, covering the gamut in content from national politics, LGBT news, Florida’s restaurant and bar scene, to Miami society.