Keepers of Giants


Kari Mutu, Earth Island Journal

Date Published


See link for photos.

Kenyan orphanage rescues and rehabilitates young elephants stranded by poaching, returns them to the wild

Edwin Lusichi holds degrees in theology and computer science but has spent the last sixteen years working with orphaned youngsters. He monitors their diet, health, and general well-being until they are ready to go back into the wild. You see, Lusichi’s orphans are elephants and he is an elephant-keeper.

“I came because I needed a job. But after some time it became a passion,” admits Lusichi, head keeper at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) in Nairobi, Kenya. He is one of thirty-odd elephant keepers who nurture a similar number of infant elephants and rhino at any given time.

The Trust was established in 1997 by Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her late husband, David Sheldrick, founding warden of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. Informally known as the elephant orphanage, DSWT is one of only two foster centers in Africa that rescue and rehabilitate young elephants before returning them to the wild. (The other is the Elephant Orphanage Project in the suburbs of Lusaka, Zambia which cares for young elephants before relocating them to the Kafue National Park.)

Every morning Lusichi, 32, and his team don their green dust coats and khaki bucket hats, and take their young charges to browse in the thickets of Nairobi National Park, which surrounds the center.

Elephants calves cannot live without milk during their first three years of life. The youngest orphans have to be fed a specially-blended milk formula every three hours using gigantic bottles carted around in a wheelbarrow. As the calf’s intake of vegetation increases, the frequency of milk feeds is reduced. It took Daphne Sheldrick, who was born and raised in Kenya, almost three decades to create the perfect milk formula. She ultimately determined that coconut oil is the best substitute for elephant milk-fat.

In the evening, the elephants are escorted back to base where each one has its own sleeping stockade — sometimes the keepers stay with them overnight. “The young ones, as in under one-and-a-half years old, have keepers with them at night,” explains Lusichi.

The baby elephants are rescued from all parts of the country after having been separated from their natural families for various reasons. Under normal circumstances, young elephants live with the protection of family groups led by a matriarch. A baby elephant left alone can easily fall prey to hunters.

“Some of the babies are found fallen down wells or stuck in the mud near rivers after heavy rain and their mothers are unable rescue them. A few of them lose their mothers from natural causes such as disease, old age, or starvation,” explains Lusichi.

“But the majority of the reasons are human related,” says Lusichi. “Human wildlife conflict is one reason and ivory poaching is another reason.”

Roi, a two-year old female, was rescued from the Maasai Mara Reserve after her mother had been killed by poachers. Ndotto, a male elephant, was found at just two-days old wandering among flocks of goat and sheep in northern Kenya.

Two-year-old Mwashoti was discovered with a badly infected snare wound on his foot and unable to move. His mother wouldn’t leave his side, leaving them both at risk from predators. Consequently, the difficult decision was made by a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) vet to rescue Mwashoti in order to save his life. He is now recovering at the nursery while his mother has returned to the safety of her herd.

Elephant poaching, driven by the illicit ivory trade and enabled by a chain of corruption from source countries all the way to overseas ivory markets, continues to claim hundreds of African elephant annually. Kenya had an estimated 167,000 elephants in 1973 but today the numbers stand at around 30,000, which makes saving every orphaned elephant vitally important. (Read EIJ’s feature on the poaching crisis in Africa here.)

The young elephants are often traumatized by the separation from their families. Some of them arrive at DSWT with injuries and others look clearly downhearted.  “Sometimes they are aggressive when they come and some of them refuse to eat,” says Lusichi.

Unfortunately, some elephants do not survive their injuries and trauma. But with patient care, veterinary treatment, and the loving attention of the other nursery youngsters, most newcomers eventually heal and settle into their new home.

Elephant-keeping is a full-time, 24-hour-a-day job. No prior experience is required but a strong love for animals is a must. Peter Mbulu, another long-time keeper, grew up in Eastern Kenya and came to the Trust with no wildlife experience. “At home we had no opportunity of seeing elephants. They were there a long time ago but not anymore. Now I really love animals.”

As for training Lusichi says, “We learn everything on the job and it is the elephants who help us to choose.” He means that after a three-month trial, the relationship between elephant and keeper is what determines whether or not an apprentice gets the job.

“Elephants can tell what you think about them and can read our hearts. They will want to be with you all the time. If not, they keep pushing you away,” says Lusichi, explaining how DWST, and the elephants, select new keepers.

The keepers name each elephant under their care and learn their individual personalities. “We name them after the place that we rescue them,” says Lusichi. “Kamok, who happens to be the naughty girl of the group, was rescued from a place called Kamok in Ol Pejeta Conservancy [in central Kenya].”

Though the keepers form bonds with the elephant, they are also careful that no single elephant becomes too dependent on or attached to a single caretaker. The youngest elephants have a different keeper each night, and the staff are regularly rotated between Nairobi and the release centres in the wild.

And just like in the wild, the elephant orphans have their leaders. “Most times a female is the group leader. I know the leader because she responds when called and her group will follow her. If she doesn’t move they all remain in that area,” says keeper Jackson Kingoo, who previously worked as a laborer job in the construction industry.

When they are three-years old, the elephants are relocated from the Nairobi nursery to integration centres in Tsavo Park and the Kibwezi Forest Reserve for gradual assimilation back into the wild. The assimilation process takes years and involves the orphans interacting with wild herds until they are adopted into established elephant families. To date, more than 190 elephants have been successfully reared and returned back to the bush.

Lusichi explains that, “It depends on the different characters of the elephants, the age when they became orphaned or the reasons it was left orphaned. Elephants stay in families and new elephants are not invited [easily] into a herd of wild elephants.”

The Trust works closely with KWS on anti-poaching initiatives, aerial support and surveillance, veterinary services, and habitat conservation. It also engages in community outreach to spread the message that people can live in harmony with animals, particularly within wildlife-neighbouring communities where poaching and bush-meat hunting remain a challenge, and wildlife is viewed unfavourably.

It’s not easy changing attitudes among poor communities competing for the same natural resources as wildlife. Yet Lusichi knows they are succeeding when he sees former poachers turning into elephant advocates. “If they see their own giving that information, they find it comfortable, they find it to be true.”

Daphne Sheldrick believes outreach work is having an enormous impact. “Now communities go to great ends to rescue baby elephants and to seek help. Understanding the importance of their natural heritage is incredibly important.”

With the continuing plague of poaching it seems that, unfortunately, the work of the elephant keepers will go on for a while.

But, as Daphne Sheldrick says, “If no more orphans coming into our care was because there were no more elephants left — well that would be our greatest fear realized. A planet without the iconic African elephant is incomprehensible.”