KENYA — When they found Enkesha in Kenya’s Masai Mara in 2017, the baby elephant’s trunk was nearly severed by the wire snare wrapped tightly around it.
She was in intense pain and at risk of losing the appendage so necessary for food and survival. It took a three-hour operation and a lot of aftercare but, two years later, calf’s trunk has knitted well. When CNN Travel meets her at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s elephant orphanage in March 2019, she is with the rest of the nursery’s little herd — none bigger than four foot tall — padding through the undergrowth, pulling at foliage with their nimble trunks.
The snare that imperiled Enkesha is one of more than 150,000 removed by the trust since it established its first de-snaring team in 1999, as part of its ongoing work for the protection and conservation of wildlife and wild habitats in Kenya.
The elephant orphanage in Nairobi National Park is the most famous of the trust’s nine programs. Founded in 1977, it was the first organization in the world to successfully raise milk-dependent orphans by hand and reintegrate them back into the wild. “Through the nursery here we’ve raised over 244 elephants,” the trust’s CEO, Angela Sheldrick, tells CNN Travel. Elephants orphaned though poaching, habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict are picked up by rescue teams and looked after by the keepers here. “When you take on a baby elephant it’s a long-term project,” she explains, because “their lives mirror our own.” An elephant of one year is just as vulnerable and needing of care as a human child.
“We presently have 93 elephants that are milk-dependent,” Sheldrick says. “They’re with us for the first three years here in the nursery. Once they get older they need exposure to the wild herds because ultimately every elephant that we raise lives a wild life again. We just usher them through the difficult milk-dependent years.” It takes time and patience to introduce them to living independently. “Like your own kids, they don’t fly the nest quickly. They need to have that confidence,” Sheldrick says. The process takes about five years, but the nursery’s alumni is blossoming. There are now close to 150 rehabilitated orphans, with 30 known calves of their own.
The orphanage has also hand-raised 17 rhinos. One of the most popular residents is Maxwell, a rhino who was born blind and then rejected by his mother. He’s been at his nursery “forever home” since 2007.
The trust was established more than 40 years ago by Angela’s mother, Daphne Sheldrick, in memory of her late husband, conservationist David Sheldrick. Daphne passed away last year, while the trust has been headed up by Angela since 2001. “When my mum was pioneering this she was the first person in the world to raise an infant elephant,” Sheldrick says. “It was difficult. One didn’t have the Internet; one didn’t have the benefit of anyone having done it before. It’s quite remarkable how far we’ve come.”
The trust’s head keeper, Edwin Lusichi, has been at the nursery for 20 years. He tells CNN Travel that working with elephants is “important and joyful and joyous, and you just feel relaxed.”
“It’s unfortunate that what is causing them to be left orphans is caused by human beings,” he adds. It’s our responsibility to look after our fellow creatures, for our planet and for the future. “Our young ones will never get to see them if we don’t protect them now,” he says.
The charity is open to the public for one hour each day, so visitors can meet the elephants and learn about the threats facing the species. Orphans can be adopted from $50 per year and their foster “parents” can enjoy an extra visiting hour in the evening.
The grown elephants go on to new lives in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya’s largest national park, but the bond with those who brought them up is not lost. “They never forget the kindness and do want to return,” Sheldrick says. “The bulls less so — they travel great distances and become more independent — but the female herds are all about bonded family units. They don’t ever forget those that have raised them.”