This past July, a 3-month-old orphaned baby elephant was discovered in Tsavo National Park, in southwestern Kenya, with a bent spear embedded in her head and a number of deep axe and spear wounds along her back and sides. It’s unclear who the perpetrators were or why the attack happened. One theory is that the elephant’s mother was killed by poachers and that when the baby tried to prevent the poachers from hacking out her mother’s tusks, they attacked her as well.
These are sad and perilous days for the world’s remaining wild elephants. When they’re not being killed for their tusks or meat, they’re struggling everywhere against the loss of viable habitat due both to human encroachment and to the drought brought on by climate change. Indeed, even efforts to fence off peaceful quadrants for them like Tsavo National Park often end in conflict; the other prominent theory for the attack on the baby found in Tsavo last July is that she was set upon by Masai tribesmen angry at having lost grazing land to the preserve.
Yet however bleak the prospects for earth’s largest land mammal may appear, the unlikely fate of that speared orphan suggests a brighter future not only for elephants, but also for us – the species’ only enemy, and now their only hope. Less than a day after being found barely alive in the woods of Tsavo, the wounded baby received emergency treatment from a park veterinarian and was then airlifted to a special orphanage located just south of the Nairobi, on the northern edge of Nairobi National Park. Owned and run by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the orphanage, or “nursery” as it often called, is the vision of Daphne Sheldrick, wife of the late naturalist David Sheldrick, a former warden of Tsavo. His death in 1977 moved Daphne to establish the Wildlife Trust in honor of her husband and his long-time conservation efforts on behalf of Kenya’s wild animals.
Daphne, a fourth-generation Kenyan, grew up around animals and worked alongside her husband in Tsavo for 28 years. Before establishing her elephant orphanage in the late 1980s, she had considerable experience rehabilitating wild animals, having reared and re-released everything from abandoned baby buffaloes, dik-diks, and impala to zebra, warthogs, and black rhinos. But elephants, because of their extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity, had always proven to be a particularly daunting challenge to rehabilitate, especially the milk-dependent babies of 3 years or younger. In fact, for the majority of their time together in Tsavo, the Sheldricks never succeeded in hand-rearing an elephant younger than 2, mainly because they couldn’t find a formula to match the nutritional equivalent of a mother elephant’s milk. In 1974, however, Daphne finally landed on a concoction of human baby formula and coconut oils with the high-fat content that baby elephants require.
With that success, she managed to keep a newborn infant she’d named Aisha alive for six months, only to learn in heartbreaking fashion another critical aspect of elephant rearing. At one point Daphne had to leave Aisha with a reliable assistant for two weeks, to tend to the arrangements for her daughter Jill’s wedding. Overcome with grief and stress over the loss of yet another mother, Aisha fell ill and pined away; she died in Daphne’s arms the day she returned.
“I’ll never forgive myself for that,” Daphne told me last month as she and her daughter Angela led me on a tour of the Nairobi orphanage. “I should have known better. They are completely attached to their mothers, even when it happens to be one of the species that has done them such harm. But from those hard lessons we were able to arrive at this.”
We stopped before a series of hay-lined stables, all their doors ajar. Several keepers in green frocks waited expectantly out front beside metal buckets containing a number of one-gallon, nipple-topped bottles filled with Daphne’s magic milk formula.
“They’ll be here any moment,” said Angela. “They’d never allow the keepers to miss one of their feeding times.”
Staring off into the bush, I spotted two or three green-frocked keepers approaching and then, nestled in between them, the signature flap-eared, brown heads and upraised trunks. Soon the keepers were running, desperate to keep up with the eager orphans, nineteen of them, all younger than 3 years old; the littlest of them, an achingly adorable and still wobbly-legged infant named Wasin, was a mere 11 days old. They rushed toward the stables, each one finding his or her own, where a keeper stood ready with the bottles. Gallons of formula disappeared in seconds.
“That female there,” Angela said, pointing to a particularly pudgy pachyderm alternately munching some brush and suckling on her keepers fingers. “That’s Murka, our little miracle, the one found with the spear in her head down in Tsavo.”
Murka, said Daphne, had arrived at the nursery with a 10-inch, fist-wide wound in her forehead that severed her nostril and prevented her from drawing water up through her trunk. Her other wounds were festering and maggot-filled. She was immediately given intravenous drip, and her wounds were cleansed and packed with special “green clay” comprised mostly of seaweed. The care brought Murka fully back to the extent that no one would ever know what she’d been through, the slight indent in her forehead notwithstanding.
“The most amazing part,” said Angela, “is how quickly she accepted people again. She was mad as hell at us when she first got here, and rightfully so. But she settled in and became so gentle and loving so quickly. And make no mistake, it wasn’t our doing. It was the influence of the other orphans. They let her know what was going on here — that it was safe. They communicate everything to one another, elephants.”
By dusk, the elephant and keeper in each stable were ready to settle in for the night. The elephants slept on a hay-covered mattress; the keepers on a raised platform bed directly above their charge — although sleep, as one keeper named Mishak noted, is a qualified term when one is mothering a baby elephant.
“Every three hours, without fail, you feel a trunk rising up and pulling you blanket off, telling you it is time for the bottle,” he said.
So far the Sheldrick Trust has successfully rehabilitated and released more than 130 orphaned elephants back into the wild. Once they become less milk dependent, at around age 3, they are sent to transition stockades down in Tsavo. There they spend another two or three years, walking daily with keepers into the bush to meet with wild elephants and returning each night to the safety of the stockades; eventually they feel encouraged enough to go off with their wild brethren for good – to go off and yet, forever confirming the cliché about elephants, to never forget.
“They’re always coming back to the stockades with their new wild friends to visit,” Daphne said. “Sometimes it’s for medical care, and sometimes to return orphans that have told them they’re not quite ready to be free. And sometimes they come just to proudly present to their former human mothers their own new wild babies. Things like that, and the recovery of Murka here, make all the sadness over the ones we can’t save bearable. At least we know we’re taking some responsibility for these amazing creatures. At least we know we’re trying.”
Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”