Benjamin Kyalo shares an incredible bond of love that transcends species as he plays ‘mother’ and even ‘grandmother’ to over 60 elephants at the Ithumba Reintegration Centre in Kenya.
The head keeper has spent a decade caring and raising the orphans like they’re his own, and says: ‘I see them as my surrogate children, my family.
‘I return to my human family whenever I can, but spending time with my elephant family gives fulfilment in my heart since I have a passion for taking care of them.
‘I am lucky and my human family is very understanding and encouraging – they are proud of what I do.
‘My connection comes from my heart, loving them and giving them the attention they require.’
The talented elephant whisperer is the head keeper of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s world-famous Ithumba Reintegration Centre, and he spends every day among orphans and wild elephants.
Benjamin’s role as an elephant ‘mother’ features on Gordon Buchanan: Elephant Family and Me tonight on BBC1, and his dedication is unparalleled.
For Benjamin his life as an elephant whisperer is his ‘calling’, from taking them on walks around the National Park each day on foot, or helping them learn the right plants to eat so they don’t get sick.
The keeper even sleeps with the younger animals in the Nairobi Nursery, which is also the Elephant Orphanage, to help hand raise them.
He says one of his favourite memories during his time spent caring for the intelligent creatures was a particular hungry baby elephant named Kinna.
‘When Kinna needed milk, she would blow air in my t-shirt through her trunk to wake me up – at the nursery we sleep in the stables with the babies – or pull away my blanket because by doing so I would get cold, then wake up to face her demands.
‘Sometimes she would also step on my chest lightly as a way of waking me up so as to give her milk.’
From giving up life’s luxuries to encountering potentially dangerous wild lions whilst out in the bush, in over ten years Benjamin has helped create a new family of wild ex-orphaned elephants who all return to visit frequently.
‘Every minute of my day revolves around elephants, so I’m very much like any mum! My role and the special bonds I have with my surrogate family give me satisfaction and fills my heart with joy, as I try giving them the second chance to live. I feel very blessed in my role.
‘It is a long process, it can take up to ten years for an elephant to feel ready to make the transition back to a life in the wild, so we are there as they go through their “milestones”.
‘And like any parent, it is both exciting and a little nerve wracking when one of the elephants chooses to make that final transition back to the wild so I am always overjoyed when ex-orphans come back to visit.’
He helps Gordon get closer than ever before with the unique animals and the presenter even meets baby Gawa, who was born just outside the centre on one of the mornings the team filmed.
Gordon follows the epic survival struggle of the elephant family and tries to win the trust of a feisty mother elephant, Wendi and her new baby, Wiva with the help of Benjamin.
The documentary also raises awareness of elephant poaching, revealing that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes by poachers.
It is left to brave animal lovers like Benjamin to teach their orphaned, hand-raised babies how to become wild elephants in place of their lost mothers.
He knows intimately how they live and survive in a world where poachers threaten the species – recent statistics indicated 50 per cent of Africa’s elephants could disappear due to poaching within the next ten years.
The keeper is totally enamoured with his second family and has spent years developing the trust of elephants ever since he started working with the trust in 1999.
After a visit to the orphanage Benjamin enquired about a job and when a vacancy came up three months later he jumped at the chance to learn more after passing an interview with one of the baby elephants.
Now he wouldn’t change anything for the world: ‘My heart lies here and I don’t see myself doing anything different from giving service to the elephants.’
Gordon Buchanan: Elephant Family and Me airs Boxing Day, BBC One at 8pm