An orphanage for wildlife

Print edition : August 24, 2012

A young elephant feeding on imported formula at the orphanage run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi.-RANJITH CHERICKEL

IT has all the trappings of a day-care centre, albeit jumbo-sized. A few big feeding bottles, water troughs, twigs and balls sit neatly on the red soil. We are at the orphanage for baby elephants run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi.

Suddenly, there is a buzz of activity as uniformed animal keepers chaperone eager baby elephants in a line to the venue. The little pachyderms are excited not about the impending interaction with more humans but about their baby food. As they rush in like athletes to the finishing point, the keepers raise the bottles into their mouths. The older and bigger ones are adept at drinking on their own. After the milk, the little ones go for the twigs. The naughtier ones try to push themselves across the barricade but are gently herded back by the keepers.

The calves are fed every three hours, but visitors are permitted inside only for half an hour in the mornings and evenings. This is no ordinary formula milk but a specially invented vegetable fat formula, imported from the United Kingdom. The milk has gone a long way in reducing orphan calf casualties.

Three of them the youngest of the lot have blankets tied to their bodies to replicate the body heat of their missing mothers. The youngest of them is one month old; it arrived at the nursery when it was two weeks old. The keepers replace the calves lost families by staying with them at the nursery 24 hours a day and sleeping with them in the night on a rotational basis.

A woman supervisor rattles off their names each is named after the area it came from or a tribal name from its place of origin. There is Tano, Barsilinga, Balguda and Mutara among others. The keepers can identify each by the shape of their eyes, head or lines. If the face is sunken, it is a sign of malnutrition, says the keeper.

The calves have arrived from various parts of Kenya, traumatised in infancy by the separation from their mothers. They are victims of poaching, man-animal conflict, or drought.

The trust, started in 1977 by David Sheldrick, who was the warden of the Tsavo East National Park, is at present managed by his wife, Daphne. (The Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks together form Kenyas largest national park, and one of the largest in the world.) There is a foster parent programme where an orphan can be adopted for a minimum fee of $50 a year.

Tourists feeding Rothschild giraffes at the AFEW Giraffe Centre, Nairobi.-

Once the orphan elephants turn two, they are sent along with their keepers to either of the trusts two units at the Tsavo National Park, which contains Kenyas largest population of elephants. At Tsavo, there is no contact with humans except their keepers. Here they are warmly welcomed and instantly accepted into the still-dependent group of older orphans that have preceded them through the Nairobi nursery. The older orphans introduce them to the wild herds whom they meet on daily sorties into the bush.

It may take five to ten years of keeper dependency before an orphaned elephant can fully integrate into the wild herds of Tsavo. Many orphan-turned-wild elephants keep in touch with the unit, returning for a good nights sleep on a straw bed or when in need of help.

The trust also takes care of orphaned baby rhinos. They are fed a full-cream humanised milk formula with added carbohydrates. Like the elephants, they are reintegrated into the wild. The reintegration process can take about three years. Since rhinos are solitary by nature and fiercely territorial, allowing an orphaned rhino free range at night in the wild has to be a gradual process.

The trust has so far rehabilitated over 130 elephant orphans and over a dozen black rhino orphans. Giraffe centre

Another popular attraction in the capital is the Africa Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) Giraffe Centre. The centre has a captive breeding programme for Rothschild giraffes, an endangered species endemic to northern Kenya and Uganda. This species has paler patches than the Maasai and the reticulated giraffes.

The centre, started in 1979, has successfully reared and released into the wild over 50 giraffes. Like at Sheldricks, giraffes also make the journey to the wild when they turn two. The 48-hectare plot of the centre has a raised platform from where visitors can feed the giraffes food pellets.

Guarding wildlife

The Kenya Wildlife Service, the state-appointed guardian of Kenyas wildlife, runs an animal orphanage in the Nairobi National Park. Orphaned and injured wild animals are taken care of here. The park is fenced on three sides only, to aid animal migration. But this has occasionally resulted in man-animal conflicts. Only recently six lions were speared by Maasai warriors on the outskirts of Nairobi for killing their livestock.

Roshin Mary George

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