While I will observe wild elephants in my safari next week, a trip was made to see the much talked about elephant orphanage in outskirts of Nairobi. To check out what was actually happening at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, you have to plan—they are open everyday but only from 11-12 pm, and it is about a thirty minute drive from the Westlands area of Nairobi, which with traffic can be challenging. The drive alone is beautiful, as you pass the city and gorgeous landscape, and also get a view of post-colonial architecture (i.e. massive bungalows representing unprecedented wealth during the British rule). The nursery of the Trust is one of few around the world and the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center (National Geographic).
The fee is a donation of 500 shillings per person, which is not much considering how it can cost over $900 per elephant per year to raise and nurture them. Elephants are brought in two rounds for viewing, from the very young ones at first, followed by two to three year olds, some of whom can already feed themselves while others are still dependent on the keepers for milk.
It is a wonderfully organized center, where a local keeper will describe the elephants, where they were rescued from, their names, and what is being done at the center. The baby elephants are so cute. Bev and I were gushing at the orphan elephants, which are victims of poaching and brought to the center from all over Kenya. Many were also abandoned by their mothers if they were too slow to begin moving about, which left them orphaned. During the one-hour viewing, they play around with mud and water or their favorite acacias trees, and are also fed milk from giant bottles, which is just adorable on its own. The milk is in fact now cows milk because it has too much fat, but a mix of soy, coconut, and proteins made at the center to replace a mother’s milk.
Once the elephants are not dependent on milk anymore, they are moved hundreds of miles away to Tsavo National Park. However, because elephants have extremely good memory and are sensitive to changes in environments or noise, it can take from five to ten years to just be able to transition into the wild from the holding centers at Tsavo. Charles Siebert notes, “the program is a cutting-edge experiment in cross-species empathy that only the worst extremes of human insensitivity could have necessitated.”
Before visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, I was not the biggest animal enthusiast. I never grew up with pets and have been scared of them most of my life. It was just last year that I got comfortable with a dog around me (no joke). I don’t like zoos, and not amused by animal tricks at the circus. It was from when I started studying abroad that I began to be interested in larger animals, especially camels in the Middle East. The two times I engaged with an elephant was in Jairpur, India in 2008 where I have a photo with one, horrified, and in Thailand in 2011, where me and my friend Katie rode elephants in the outskirts of Bangkok.
In Nairobi, there is no such thing as riding elephants. Rather, you come here and you are humbled to learn about these perilous animals that were once abundant throughout the world. Elephants are more known for being poached and killed for their tusks or bush meat, and human-led violence is actually increasing. Yet it is up to the humans to help rescue them and bring their numbers back, as Daphne, a fourth-generation Kenya-born woman of British origin started with the establishment of the center in 1987 with her husband David Sheldrick, a famous naturalist.
There is a lot of politics around the elephants, from local Masaai beliefs about their natural habitat and place in their culture, to increased demand of elephant tusks in global trade, and to the discussion of who bears responsibility to nurture, raise, and educate the masses about them. While most travelers are weary of visiting animals in captivity, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is a must see for anyone in Nairobi, as it will show you the depth of human activity and its effect on the world we live in in just a short period of time.