When Edwin Lusichi graduated from theology school, he never envisioned a career as a baby-sitter.
But finding himself unemployed and in need of a job, he came across an unusual work opportunity: Taking care of orphaned baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), also known as the Nairobi elephant orphanage.
“I had never worked with wildlife. I came here straight from school,” says Lusichi, now the head keeper at the DSWT Nairobi Nursery Unit situated in the Nairobi National Park.
In fact, he had never laid eyes on an elephant before coming to the Trust, as there are no elephants near his home town of Kakamega in western Kenya.
Clad in the green dust coat and khaki-hat uniform of the elephant-keepers, Lusichi, with a team of dedicated assistants, has been raising half-tonne, four-legged babies for the past 15 years. It’s a Monday to Sunday, 24-hour a day job of routine, patience and dedication.
“Every morning at around six, we take the baby elephants out for a walk within the park,” explains Peter Mbulu a long serving elephant keeper at the nursery who works under Lusichi.
“At eleven, we take them out to the enclosure where the public can see them, and we let them play for an hour. From there we bring them back to their feeding and playing pens until five o’clock, when we take them to sleep inside the stockade until the next day.”
Like Lusichi, assistant Mbulu had never worked with wildlife before joining the Trust 14 years ago but he has fallen in love with this job.
“I really love the animals,” he says.
Elephants are naturally social creatures, living in tight-knit family groups. Research has shown that they possess highly developed mental and emotional traits.
The baby elephants at the orphanage are rescued from all over the country having lost their families to, drought, or by getting stuck in mud pools in drying riverbeds or falling down man-made wells.
However, a large number of them are the unfortunate survivors of human-wildlife conflict or poaching that claims the adults in a herd.
Consequently, the rescued calves often arrive in the orphanage traumatised, depressed or aggressive, and it can take days or weeks to restore them back to good health and social behaviour.
Sometimes the young elephants are victims of the bush-meat trade. A male baby elephant called Mwashoti was rescued in February 2014 in Taita/Taveta County with a dreadful snare wound that had almost severed its foot.
Mwashoti and his mother had been separated from their herd, leaving them vulnerable to predators and starvation as he was by this stage immobile due to the injury.
A KWS veterinary officer rescued Mwashoti to give him and his mother a chance at survival. Today, Mwashoti has made a full recovery and is a happy member of the orphans group, while his mother was able to rejoin the wild herd.
The Trust receives offspring as young as a few days old and they remain at the nursery for the first three years since they live on a milk only diet.
Then the youngsters are translocated to the Tsavo Conservation Area where they are gradually reintroduced into the wild, a process that could take up to 10 years.
There are two reintegration centres in Tsavo East and a third in the Kibwezi Forest Reserve.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder and chairperson of the Trust, says that the decisions are “based on friendships, and health and how robust they are, with Ithumba [Tsavo] very suitable for the bulls, Voi for matriarchal groups and Umani [Kibwezi] for those more fragile.”
Considering the human-induced trauma visited upon the young animals, it is a wonder that they learn to trust people at all.
Daphne puts it down to the elephants’ strong intellect. “Elephants are highly intelligent, with sophisticated means of communication, so in time they can grow to trust again if shown only tender loving care. They know the difference between good and bad, and have a huge capacity for forgiveness. Their hearts are pure.”
At the Nairobi nursery, each animal has a sleeping stockade and the keepers stay overnight with the youngest elephants, waking up every three hours to feed their charges.
“Sometimes we’ve got a few very young orphans who need close attention so the night duties depend on the pressure of the work. The young ones, of under one-and-a-half years, will need somebody in the rooms at night,” says Lusichi.
He is in charge of the 32 elephant keepers and he plans the daily shifts and rotational duty between Nairobi and the reintegration stations.
Since the baby elephants are away from their natural herds, the keepers must mirror the habits of wild elephants. For example in the wild, elephant babies often huddle under their mothers for warmth and are protected from the elements by the rest of the family in the herd.
At the orphanage, the keepers have to wrap a blanket over the backs of the younger calves because baby elephants have trouble regulating their body temperature.
Sometimes, the keepers bottle-feed the younger ones while standing beside a hung woollen blanket to simulate the sensation of the infant standing beside its mother’s broad body.
All these stratagens are meant to assure the calves that they are safe.
The keepers must learn the elephants’ individual characteristics: Some are bullies, some shy and some greedy. Lusichi points at a female calf called Kamok. “If you are with her, she’s very cheeky, very naughty sometimes and very playful.”
During the day the keepers chaperone the orphans into a lightly forested area close to the nursery to browse and play, dividing them into older and younger elephants. Kingoo explains that the older elephants are allowed to browse farther afield.
“The milk is not enough when they are this size. For example a three-and-a-half-years-old elephant has a mind of its own. If it wants to find grass it will go far but it will not go too far because it is the leader of its group.”
Elephants establish their group leaders at a very early age.
“In the group of big ones it is Arruba. In the other group, it is Oltaiyoni. Most times in the bush, the female is the group leader,” observes Kingoo. Like Lusichi and Mbulu, he too joined the Trust with no animal experience, having previously worked as a builder in the construction industry.
By watching the youngsters keenly, the keepers figure out which are the group leaders.
“I know which one responds when called and which one ignores you, even in the stockades,” Kingoo says.
“When a leader responds, her group will follow her. If she doesn’t move, they all remain where they are.”
All the orphans are named upon arrival and the names are usually of the area in which they were found. Teaching an elephant its name is not much different from teaching a child, says Kingoo.
“When older elephants first arrive, we keep them in the stockade for about one to two weeks. During that time, the elephant notices that when each person comes they call it by that name. Often you will give it milk as you are calling its name. By the time it leaves the stockade it understands the name.”
Kingoo calls out in a gentle voice to Siangiki, a female calf found near Narok, then reaches under her chest to pluck off something. “These are ticks. I’m taking them off because they’re biting her chest.”
The affection and care displayed by the keepers towards the young elephants is amazing. Indeed, it is the number one requirement for anybody who wants to become an elephant keeper. Kingoo say that to like the work you must like the animas.
“If you don’t like these animals, you won’t make it. You must show them love. That’s the first thing to know as a keeper.”
After a three-month training period, Lusichi says that ultimately it is the keeper-elephant relationship that determines whether a new recruit is permanently hired.
“Elephants are very clever. The elephants can read our hearts and they can tell the emotion of the person, even when you’re new,” declares Lusichi.
“When you are with them and you’re thinking how can I kill them, or you want to beat them, or even when you’re pinching then, then they don’t want to be associated with you. Even when you stop thinking of killing or harming them, they don’t want to come close to you.”
The “elephant-whisperer” of the Trust is a 22-year veteran keeper, Meshak Nzimbi, currently based in Tsavo.
“All the elephants like him, even the new ones,” says Lusichi. No matter how emotionally devastated, there hasn’t been one elephant that has not responded to Nzimbi.