Sheldrick Wildlife Trust - How To Save An Elephant (Part 1 of 3)

October, 2011. On our second trip to Kenya, I couldn’t wait to go back to visit the elephants and keepers at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. We help foster three baby elephants – Tumaren, Turkwel, and Kainuk – and spending time with them was at the very top of the list.


Beautiful baby Turkwell and her bottle

The Sheldrick trust based in Kenya is known worldwide for its superior care and protection of elephants. Today, unfortunately, the need for care and protection of elephants and rhinos is at an all time high. Officials in Kenya say Chinese demand for ivory has prompted a surge in elephant poaching and the illegal smuggling of elephant tusks.


BIg beautiful creatures - how could anyone kill them for their tusks

In a Voice of America article written by Gabe Joselow, he reports that illegal ivory is on the upswing.  He quotes a dealer at the art market in downtown Nairobi, “The ivory trade is very much illegal here in Kenya, and we normally see tourists, especially Chinese, who are very much interested in ivory. But we normally tell them straight and up front that we don't deal in ivory because it's an illegal trade, but to them they always insist and try and tell us just get me any type of ivory, I'll buy at any price, but we always try to tell them up front that is very much impossible.”


Kasigau, found with deep arrow in his trunk

China won permission to import ivory in 2008 from an international wildlife trade convention known as CITES, after implementing a certification system labeling each legal ivory item with an official identification card. (How on earth could they let this happen?)

And elephants in Africa are increasingly threatened as a direct result. Today the whole continent is littered with one of the saddest sights in the world - that of dead elephants with their tusks removed.

Looks like a good place to sit

Dr. Esmond Martin conducted a study of the illegal trade in conjunction with the British conservation group Elephant Family. He said ivory is typically smuggled out of the country raw and in bulk. It is taken to factories in China where it is carved and then sold out in the open. Martin said since the ban was partially lifted, demand has increased in China, and he has seen evidence that more illegal ivory is making its way into the markets.

In his own surveys, Martin has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of ivory items being sold in parts of China since 2004, and that the majority of these are being sold without identification cards. (I have heard anecdotally that many Chinese people who crave ivory are not aware that the elephant must be killed, and think this is a tooth which is extracted and will grow back.)

How could anyone harm such an innocent baby

Kenya is takeing a leadership position to protect elephants with the Kenya Wildlife Service, although most agree the government sanctions need to be strengthened even more.  The government recently had a massive burning of the illegal tusks which were confiscated at airports. Other countries, with less organization and less funding, with less education to the native peoples about the importance of wildlife, are seeing an enormous killing field. Stephanie Vergault of SOS Elephants of Chad reports the killing of 30 animals per day. Since the Libyan war she is especially worried about the remaining ones. " It is very well know that many armed group coming from the North and East want to take the power in Chad and definitely if weapons are circulating , they will do anything to get the cash to buy those weapons. How are we going to protect the elephants of Chad ????Only 2000 are still alive , if any destabilization occurs , we will lose all of them.."


Baby Rhombo arrived at the nusery gaunt from milk deprivation

As if slaughtering elephants for their tusks weren’t horrific enough, it is compounded by the fact that besides killing the magnificent and endangered creatures- the murderers leave behind helpless babies who are as dependent as human infants and suckle from their mothers for at least two years.

Baby Kainuk follows Turkwel everywhere

In any part of the country, when an infant elephant is found alone, often by the Kenya Wildlife Service, they notify the Sheldrick team who jumps into action. The rescuers rush to the site. After making sure there is no adult elephant help for the baby, they capture, tie down and administer any immediately needed veterinary care. Then the traumatized baby, who often has witnessed its mother and possibly herd being massacred, is flown back to the orphanage in Nairobi.


Founder Dafne Sheldrick is a friendly presence (with Georja Umano)

At the orphanage, the orphan will receive an abundance of love and care. They will be fed a special formula of infant milk flown in from the U.K. every three hours, will be mothered by a caretaker who stays with them and even sleeps with them, will be taken for daily walks with caretakers and other baby elephants, two times a day in Nairobi National Park, be given a special time for mud baths, and take possession of their own sleeping stable with a blanket around them to help prevent pneumonia. They are named, and their individualities are appreciated by all the staff. Even so the babies mourn for days, weeks or even months. Some do not survive.


Solio, one of two young black rhinos at the orphanage

There is limited visiting of the nursery by humans two times daily, and hopefully the baby will be adopted by plenty of adoring foster parents to help pay for the $800/month cost of raising a baby elephant. But for only $50/year minimum, one can choose their own baby to adopt and receive monthly photos and updates of how their baby is doing.


Getting re-aquainted with Turkwel

It was heartwarming to visit our two year old Turkwel. We met her when she was a timid and thin one year old. Now newer adoptee Kainuk has adopted Turkwel as her big sister and will go no where without her. It is touching and thrilling to see the incredible bond which as developed between these two elephant children. Their relationship has helped Turkwel to have more confidence and behave in a more maternal and matriarchal way. She has also grown into a good size and stature for her age.

Edwin Lusichi discusses fostering program with new adoptive parents

We also met Rombo whose face was severely sunken in from malnutrition on the first day of our trip, and eleven days later we could see a marked improvement in his features.  Poor little Kasigau arrived with an arrow in his face. A special green clay is applied daily and on our last visit his wounds had cleared immensely. At first he trusted no one and woud not drink milk from the bottle, It had to be administered to him in a bucket. After ten days he was going for walks with the other orphans, although still looking quite sad.


Elephants are related to whales

When the orphans reach about three years old they are sent to a remote campsite in Tsavo East Park were they are still dependent on keepers for milk but very slowly weaned and the caretakers no longer sleep with the individuals. When they go on walks in the park, they will be introduced to wild elephant herds.  It generally takes between 5 to 10 years before an elephant is adopted back to the wild and comes under the protection of a wild herd. The wild ones generally teach the young to be less trusting of humans so as time passes they are expected to become completely wild. Re-connecting with our Tumaren and her friends there was an unbelievable experience we will never forget


Keepers bring babies in from foraging in Nairobi National Park

The Trust was started by Dame Dafne Sheldrick to honor David O. Sheldrick, her husband and pioneer in the work of protecting and caring for wildlife in Kenya. Sheldrick left a legacy in his work, and also in the example of his fight to create a real wilderness sanctuary. Central to his efforts was a belief that wildlife and wilderness were "not to be guarded simply for their own sake, but they were a wellspring for our spiritual refreshment - yours and mine and that of future generations."


Tsavo East National Park - dry and wild

From The Wilderness Gurardian” a field manual and text book throughout Africa today, are direct quotes from Sheldrick’s field notes regarding the requirements for a good national park warden: "He must have administrative ability ….He must have an understanding of ecology,  be able to fly an aircraft, …, be familiar with the habits of wild animals, … He should be an ambassador of national parks at all times and show initiative and resourcefulness greater than that called for in most professions.   Above all, he should be absolutely dedicated and of the utmost integrity".  

Tumaren, now living at Ithumba camp, does some serious scratching after her mudbath

David Sheldrick exuded all these skills and more. He also established the Tsavo National Park, which is the largest wildlife refuge and with the most elephants in all of Africa. Sheldrick was also the first human to make a detailed study of all the plants that were being eaten by the elephants. I am sure his influence is one of the reasons the Kenya Wildlife Service is as strong and effective as it is today.

Wild elephants in ultra dry conditions line up politely at water hole

Dame Dafne Sheldrick is a recognized international authority on the rearing of wild creatures and is the first person to have perfected the milk formula and necessary husbandry for both infant milk dependent elephants and rhinos.Since the death of her husband in 1977, she has lived and worked in the Nairobi National Park, courtesy of the Kenya Government, in the grounds with the orphans' nursery. It is here that she has successfully hand-reared over 130 newborn elephant orphans, some from just hours old, the first time this has ever been achieved. Having completed their two milk dependent years, these orphans, together with the human family of keepers who replace the lost elephant family, grow up in the Tsavo National Park, where they mingle freely and at will with the wild herds and eventually become fully integrated back into the wild community. Today many of the operations of the orphanage are being overseen by her daughter Angela.


Orphans at Ithumba camp play in the mud

Some of Daphne's orphans have now had wild born young, which they have brought back to show their human family. Daphne has also successfully raised and rehabilitated over a dozen black rhino orphans. Her expertise has been instrumental in helping many other elephants Africa wide, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Uganda and Cameroon. She spends time daily with the babies, and especially comforts the new traumatized ones who come, giving them her fingers to suck.


Happy baby at Ithumba camp in Tsavo East- ready for her milk

The Sheldrick Trust is the best place in the world to raise an orphan baby elephant. But it is heartbreaking that there are so many elephants being slaughtered.The international community must become aware of this problem and find a way to create effective education and sanctions in China for people to stop demanding ivory and to realize they are killing our heritage. When we kill off nature we are killing ourselves. After spending time with the elephants who seem so very human, this all comes home in a very real way.

Please see article part 2

and part 3, Latest Articles:

Photos by Georja Umano

Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.

To learn more about the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and its projects, or to foster an orphan elephant, visit:

From the USA to make a tax deductible contribution, send check to:

201 North Illinois Street
16th Floor - South Tower
Indianapolis, IN 46204



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