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Environmental Protection

This African Wildlife Trust Rescues and Raises Orphaned Elephants

Photo: Courtesy of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Martin de la Torre and Mia Collis

Operating in some of Kenya’s wildest and most remote corners, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (SWT) is synonymous with elephants. 

Recognising the plight of calves left orphaned by humans, and their importance to the survival of the species, the SWT pioneered the rescue and husbandry needed to successfully raise these orphaned baby elephants, and reintegrate them back into a protected area when grown. 

Many calves are found on the brink of death, suffering from starvation, wounds caused by predators, injuries inflicted by humans, or dehydration. Using whatever transportation necessary, including vehicle, aircraft, or helicopter, rescue teams are equipped with stretchers to carry the orphans, special milk formula, and vital medicines including drips to offer immediate aid and nourishment at the scene as they are brought to the safety of the SWT’s Nursery.

Caring for orphans is a round-the-clock, day-in and day-out commitment. Without their mothers beside and above them to provide shelter and warmth, the vulnerable baby elephants at the nursery would be more susceptible to heat stroke and pneumonia. The SWT takes extra special care to shield them from the elements and ensures they are protected at all times, offering unconditional love and emotional support to meet their psychological needs. 

Room for growth

As elephants get older, however, they need exposure to wild herds and at the SWT’s three Reintegration Units, based in protected conservation areas, older orphan elephants gradually learn how to live as wild elephants, interacting with local wild elephant populations. Rehabilitation is a long process and it can take up to a decade for an orphaned elephant to successfully acquire the social and survival skills it will need to live a successful wild life that’s independent of their human carers. 

In saving orphaned elephants, the SWT aims to boost populations in a continent that, at the height of ivory poaching, saw 35,000 elephants killed each year. 

Already, the charity has seen remarkable success. To date, 150 orphans have returned back to the wild, protected by the SWT’s field teams, which have patrolled the Tsavo Conservation Area — home to Kenya’s single largest elephant population with 12,000 — for the past 19 years.  

Pooches stopping poachers

As well as anti-poaching rangers and aerial surveillance initiatives, since 2016, the SWT has operated a fully trained canine unit that follows the growing success of the use of sniffer dogs in the fight against poaching. 

The squad includes six handlers and four fully trained furry team members: Naiko, a veteran who has great endurance in the Tsavo heat; Parker, a Dutch-Shepherd cross; Zora, a Belgian Malinois; and Aya, a Belgian Malinois-German Shepherd cross, who is particularly determined and focused when tracking. All can detect illegal wildlife products, such as ivory, rhino horn, bushmeat, and guns and ammunition, and they can all follow poachers’ tracks. 

Putting their extraordinary noses and sense of smell to good use, each canine has the search capabilities of up to 60 rangers (in good conditions), covering the same ground over the same time.

Thanks to these guardians of the wild, Tsavo’s elephant population is on the rise according to a recent census and, incredibly, some of these burgeoning elephant herds include calves that were born to orphaned elephants rescued, raised, and reintegrated by the SWT. In fact, the SWT is aware of 34 babies born to female orphaned elephants they have saved and returned to the wild, showing the difference that rescuing just one orphan can have for the whole species. 
Anyone can act as a guardian of the wild by signing up for the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Adoption Program. Find out how you can help support the care of an orphaned elephant and receive monthly email updates on their progress for a donation of $50 a year at https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/.

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