Rescuing Wild Babies

This story of my visit to a wildlife orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, was published in the Marin Independent Journal in December of 2000.

Daphne Sheldrick sits on the porch of her home in Nairobi National Park and watches her two youngsters eat lunch. After devouring their meals, the pair walk together toward the edge of a mudwallow.

Sheldrick watches with the eye of a proud parent as one youngster nudges the other, pushing him into the hole. She looks on, undisturbed, while they roll together in the mud. It is, after all, perfectly natural behavior for the pair; Sheldrick’s “youngsters” are three-year-old wild rhinos.

The 1500-pound babies at Sheldrick’s orphanage for African wildlife are Magnum and Magnette. In early 1997, the newborn Magnette was discovered separated from her mother. Magnum is the calf of Scud, a previously orphaned black rhino who was born in Nairobi National Park during the Gulf War.

Scud was just three months old when she arrived at the orphanage without a tail, her hindquarters chewed by hyenas while she gallantly defended the body of her mother. Traumatized by the poachers, Scud was fearful of humans. “It took six long weeks to persuade her to leave the security of her stable, but she grew up to become fully integrated into the wild community,” Sheldrick recalls.

Then in May of 1996, Scud dragged herself back to the orphanage using her chin and left leg for support. Her right leg severely injured, a pregnant Scud was kept as comfortable as possible until she could give birth to Magnum. Scud was euthanized after developing a bone infection, so three-week-old Magnum became an orphan.

While most of us rescue the occasional domestic stray cat or dog, Daphne Sheldrick has spent over 60 years rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned or injured African wildlife. At age three, Sheldrick cared for her first orphan (a duiker antelope) and has since aided or reared rhino, buffalo, antelope, zebra, and elephant. But it wasn’t until 1960 — when the Kenyan-born Daphne married renowned naturalist and Tsavo’s Founder-Warden, David Sheldrick — that her life became a veritable sequel to ‘Born Free.’

By studying the orphans found in Tsavo, Daphne became an expert on the behavior of native animals. After years of trial and error, Sheldrick developed the husbandry necessary to successfully hand-rear orphaned black rhino and elephant calves. In the early sixties, she perfected the milk formula necessary for infant rhino survival, then ten years later, did the same for milk-dependent elephant calves.

meal time

In 1976, David Sheldrick was transferred to Nairobi National Park, where he died of a heart attack the following year. In 1977, Daphne established the orphanage, funded by the David Sheldrick Trust. The staff of 30 includes the elephant and rhino keepers trained in the husbandry.

Although rhinos are not as particular as elephants when it comes to bonding with their human keepers, the animals are never left alone, and natural conditions are simulated as much as possible. Keepers, who substitute as mother figures, work in 12-hour shifts.

“Throughout infancy, rhino babies must be fed every four hours during the day only,” says Sheldrick. “Otherwise, a comfortable stable, a little mudwallow, a dungpile, and a mother figure are all it takes to make a baby rhino contented and happy.”

Enjoying a mud bath

That, however, is not the case with baby elephants. “On arrival, the babies are always severely traumatized, often having witnessed the violent massacre of their families by ivory poachers,” Sheldrick says. “Unless newborn, and therefore lacking comprehension, they inevitably enter a period of deep grieving.”

The first step toward survival for the infant elephants begins with Sheldrick’s team of keepers. “Constant affection, attention, touching and communication are crucial to their will to live,” she says. “They must never be left alone.”

Elephants bond with their keepers, so to avoid serious attachments, Sheldrick rotates the men every eight hours. She learned that lesson the hard way when she nursed newborn Aisha to six months of age then left for two weeks to attend her daughter’s wedding. Aisha became depressed and refused to eat. She died, Sheldrick believes, of a broken heart.

Daphne with a baby orphaned elephant

Since infant elephants are difficult feeders, keepers hang a blanket between two trees and put the bottle through a hole in the middle of the blanket. This replicates the shape and feel of the mother’s belly, which the infant rests his trunk against while suckling up to 45 pints of formula a day.

Fragile infants will hide under their mothers for protection from the elements, so their surrogate mothers supply blankets on cold days, rain-wear on wet days, and sunscreen on sunny ones. Keepers and elephants sleep together, play together, and take walks in varied surroundings.

Highly intelligent, the elephants can also be quite childlike. “They can be naughty, competitive, and disobedient. When you say no, they want to do it,” says Sheldrick. Discipline must be carried out very carefully, with the keeper later making a big show of forgiveness. “It’s important to make friends with them again,” she says.  “They have prodigious memories.”

One of Sheldrick’s oldest success stories is Eleanor, who in 1970, was released back into the wild community of elephants in Tsavo, 200 miles southeast of Nairobi. When Sheldrick’s young charges reach age two, she releases them into Eleanor’s custody, where they become part of the 44-year-old matriarch’s family. “The little elephants are always welcome in a wild herd,” she says.

The keepers accompany the orphans to their new home, watching over them while they forage in the bush by day. At night, the elephants are returned to special stockades for protection from lions. The orphans won’t be entirely independent of their human family until about age 15, when they’ve formed close friendships within the wild herds. “Eventually they get bored stiff with people because they’re having more fun with elephants,” Sheldrick says.

Sheldrick, however, is never bored. Besides heading the Trust, she often writes and lectures about the plight of the elephant and rhino, which are hunted mainly for their ivory tusks and keratin horns. Because more than 150,000 elephants were slaughtered in the 70s and 80s, and Kenya’s rhino population is down to about 500, Sheldrick crusades tirelessly on their behalf.

For now, and for the next two years, Magnum and Magnette will stick close to their keepers at the orphanage. At age five — the time when a young rhino would leave its natural mother — they will be ready to live on their own in Nairobi National Park.

As they become more independent, the rhinos will wander greater distances from the orphanage before returning. “It’s hard for them to leave,” says a seasoned volunteer. “They walk around, but come back. Each day they go a little farther. Then one day, they walk off and never come back.”

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