Nairobi's David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust provides a safe place for orphaned elephant calves to recover and find their emotional balance before they can be integrated into wild herds…

All my maternal instincts flared up when the little elephant orphans came padding out, mini trunks swinging, into the enclosure to have an hour of fun in the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. An area the size of a small football field had been enclosed with jute string and all around it visitors from all over the world let out a collective ‘awwww!' as soon as the little babies came rushing out to feed and play, very much like our human babies do. The only difference was that huge, outsized milk bottles with much larger teats were used to feed the little babies, with a special milk formula, imported all the way from the U.K.

Snuffling and nudging their keepers, they guzzled down their milk at super-quick speeds and some were greedily trying to push the smaller babies to get an extra ounce or two from their feeds. The milk, according to Taal, the lady who gave us a running commentary through the show, “has to be made fresh every three hours. There are three different keepers on milk mixing duties who sterilise the bottles and mix the special SMA Gold baby milk formula imported from England. It is imported especially from the manufacturers and each baby drinks up to one tin a day. As they grow older, they need more so it could go up to 24 pints and every infant has a different formula according to their needs. Those who are drought victims have coconut cream and boiled barley added to their milk. Others may have medication to handle their special conditions. Elephant babies are allergic to the fat in cow's milk and can die if fed on it,” she explained. As she spoke, tiny little Tenu, who was just two months old and the newest baby to be saved just a day ago, came up and started sucking Taal's fingers. She had been rubbed down with the warm red African soil by the keepers and it was so obvious that she was missing her mother. However, visitors are warned not to put their fingers in the baby's mouths as they do have sharp teeth.

Taal introduced us to several of the babies by name. “That is Suguta,” she said, “who is 21 months old, and her mother was a victim of poachers. Shukuri means thankful and she was rescued from a tank which illegal metal industries have built. The rest of the community wanted to eat her but she was lucky to be saved by one person who contacted us. Tenu is another baby who was named by the number of the field he was found in. His mother was a poaching victim. We earnestly hope the government does not relax the selling of stockpiles of ivory because then again more elephants will fall victim to this horrifying trade.”

Amusing antics

Mutura, another female baby, was a caring elephant baby and kept a watchful eye on Tumrin who was 18 months old and an orphan due to human and wildlife conflict issues. It was so heart-wrenching to see these little orphans guzzling milk, running around excitedly kicking large balls and best of all, having a jolly good mud bath. Loud guffaws and chuckles greeted their antics from the visitors standing around and cameras clicked incessantly saving pictures of their antics to take home and savour.

Taal explained to us that “the female baby is most vulnerable to despair and psychological trauma with the loss of her mother. Survival is crucial during the nursery stage and can happen only if they are raised by keepers for the first three years on a continuous basis. Elephants can read a human's heart so it is important that this love is sincere. It is imperative for an orphaned infant elephant to have the loss of its family replaced by a human family for it to handle the stress. Therefore, the keepers have to be dedicated, connecting with them for 24 hours. The keepers are with them through the day and sleep with them through the night. In fact they get attached to one person and will not drink milk from anyone else. That is why we have 40 keepers and they do not stick to one baby but raise them collectively. Every night they sleep with a different baby and the babies are not fed any vegetable and fruit food which is not natural elephant diet. We are raising elephants to go back into the wild, so we cut branches of the regular vegetation elephants eat and feed them with that.”

After a year the orphaned baby elephants are transferred to the Tsavo National Park where they will take nearly 10 long years of a slow integration into the wild elephant community. For now, these babies have to be loved and cared for, very much like a human baby, otherwise they will not be welcomed into the wild herds once they grow.

Quick reference: If you are an elephant lover check out the website: http//sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/ for interesting insights into these endangered African elephants.