Painfully thin and bearing the bloody marks of would-be poachers, little Simotua was barely alive when he was found wandering, lost and alone, through central Kenya’s Rumuruti Forest.
With a spear wound to his forehead and a deep slash around his leg from a hunter’s snare, the elephant calf, believed to be little more than a year old, was in a bad way.
But despite his injuries, Simotua is one of the lucky ones — he was found just in time, and thanks to the work of conservationists, his future is looking bright.
For thousands of elephants every year, there is no such happy ending: Experts say 96 elephants are killed across Africa every day.
The majestic animals’ numbers have declined dramatically in Africa over the past 75 years — down from three million in 1940 to 1.5 million in 1980, and just 300,000 today, according to the David Sheldrick Trust.
The charity’s founder, Daphne Sheldrick, has dedicated her life to helping the elephants — but says that despite the hard work of her team and other conservationists, she fears greatly for the animals’ future.
“I doubt whether my great-grandchildren will actually be able to see wild elephants living a normal life,” she tells CNN. “They are going very rapidly, one every 15 minutes.”
International bans on the sale of ivory since 1989 have failed to halt the hunters — with a single elephant tusk selling on the black market in China for as much as $100,000 to $200,000, the poachers have a strong financial motive to keep up the slaughter.
Sheldrick believes that the threat from illegal hunters will not cease until Asia’s insatiable appetite for ivory is halted.
“Something needs to be done on the other end,” she says. “There’s no welfare in Africa — there’s poverty and unemployment, [so] as long as a man can get money from killing an elephant, he will.”
The high stakes involved mean those battling against the poachers put themselves in harm’s way to save elephants — but they insist their work is a vocation.
“Our job is a calling,” says ranger Willy Kemoi. “It’s dangerous, but we try our best. This job is not that easy, so if you do not have the passion [for it], then you cannot go on.”
Kemoi and his colleagues from the Kenya Wildlife Service work with teams from the David Sheldrick Trust to remove wire snares and traps set by hunters, and to search for injured animals.
On a recent mission in the Tsavo National Park, they found a six-ton bull elephant with a serious, badly infected wound to his left flank — caused by a hunter’s poisoned arrow.
After tracking and tranquilizing the 40-year-old animal, Kenya Wildlife Service veterinarian Dr. Jeremiah Poghon was able to clean and dress the injury, treating it with antibiotics and packing it with green clay to stave off another infection.
It’s estimated that his wound was three weeks old — another week without treatment and it could have proved fatal, says Dr. Poghon: “The pus gets into the abdominal cavity, it will kill it.”
This elephant was left with its herd and is expected to make a full recovery, but younger animals, like Simotua, can’t look after themselves.
Instead they’re brought to one of the Trust’s “orphanages,” in Nairobi and Ithumba, where specially-trained keepers like Julius Letoyia and Benjamin Kyalo care for them, feeding them up to 24 liters of milk a day.
Letoyia has been raising orphaned elephants for 16 years, and sees himself as an adoptive parent to the animals: “Here, we’re playing mothers’ roles,” he says.
Kyalo was working as a mechanic when he paid a visit to the elephant nursery and fell in love with the animals. Inspired by what he’d seen, he asked for a job.
“When I went for my interview, they said, ‘Go put on a uniform and the elephants will interview you,'” he says. “That’s when I really understood that elephants can read humans’ hearts.”
Once rescued elephants like Simotua have recovered from their injuries, they are rehabilitated and taught how to live in the wild again — the Trust has released some 200 of the animals over the years.
But it can be an uphill struggle — for the elephants and their carers.
“The pain, the situation he is in, it has been caused by human beings,” explains Julius Shivenga. “So to win the trust of the elephant, it is very difficult.”
Simotua is doing well so far, enjoying their company of other orphaned elephants, wandering in the bush and taking mud and dust baths with them.
His young age means it will be many years before he can be released to fend for himself; until then, his carers will do all they can to protect him.