When the young Jabulani arrived at Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), my mother called around, looking for advice on what to do and how to feed the baby elephant. One of the people she spoke to was Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who suggested that she never use only one handler with Jabulani, but to rather rotate the human interaction with the elephant calf, to prevent him from becoming too attached to one person. This can easily happen with elephants, and should the handler leave, the elephant is likely to mourn and die as a result of grief.
I had the opportunity to visit The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust after climbing Kilimanjaro, as we stopped over in Kenya for our connecting flight to Johannesburg. My dear friend, Romy Swart, was eager to join me for another day, and we left Moshi at 3 am after our summit, having enjoyed a nice hot shower. Arriving at 7 am, we started the short 15-minute trip to our guesthouse, which was also 15-minutes from the elephant sanctuary. However, I quickly realised that 15-minutes meant an hour by African time standards!
When we arrived at the elephant sanctuary, the talk had already started and the guide/keeper was telling the onlookers about the group of elephants that had arrived for their morning milk. I was awed to see so many baby elephants; all rescued after their mothers had been poached. I wondered whether these will be the only elephants left in a few years time – those that have been saved by human beings with good hearts, who will protect them from being killed for their ivory. After receiving their milk, the keepers either splashed them with water or dust, before taking them back to their lodgings and bringing in the next group of younger orphans.
However, even though over 80 young orphaned elephants have been saved, reared and offered a second chance in life and freedom, many have not successfully made it beyond the fragile two-year infant stage.
All the orphaned elephants raised by the Trust are gradually rehabilitated back into the wild elephant community of Tsavo National Park, once old enough. This transition that is made at the elephant’s own pace, but usually takes about eight to ten years. A number of ex-nursery orphans have now given birth to young ones in the wild, and have brought them back to the sanctuary to show them to their erstwhile human family. Others are now pregnant and living free, yet keeping in touch with those who are still ‘keeper dependent’. Amongst these are many that were orphaned too young to have any recollection of their elephant mother or family.
I was able to meet with Angela Sheldrick, who is continuing with the amazing work her mother is doing. I asked her advise on releasing elephants back into nature, as I think that is the ultimate of success story and this was what she had to say:
“There is no magic formula – you need other elephants. We obviously have the continuity of many elephant orphans of varying ages, including older animals that lead the way, having raised over 150 elephants successfully over a span of 50 years. We began with two elephants that grew up together in the late 1940’s, so we have never had a situation of raising a solitary orphan. Babies raised in isolation are much more challenging to reintegrate.”
I wish I’d had more time to spend at the sanctuary – the energy and wisdom among the animals was incredible. I decided to foster an elephant called Barsilinga – a male that was born in March 2012. He was approximately two weeks old when he was found near Wamba, next to his dying mother. His mother was a victim of poachers, and had to be euthanised as her wounds were too severe for recovery.
Every little it helps, and I wish them all the best with the special work they do in East Africa.