Attack Of The Baby Elephants

3 min read

It was a stampede. Dozens of them - a thundering herd. Each weighed hundreds of pounds and nothing could stop their furious charge. The ground shook and we stared in disbelief as they raced toward us, trumpeting frantically. They were hungry, ravenous and in a wild-eyed rush. Now they were upon us. We should have been terrified… instead, we laughed and petted them as they rumbled by, most of them about waist high.

The tiny elephants scrambled to their keepers who held up the biggest baby bottles you’ve ever seen.  It was a scene of devastating cuteness.

In the pandemonium, some of the little tykes even stumbled over their own trunks, crying for their caregivers. Finally, grabbing at their giant milk bottles, the baby elephants downed quarts of the milky white formula. Like feeding babies everywhere, they were in heaven.

It was another amazing afternoon at the baby Elephant Nursery in Nairobi National Park. If you ever visit Nairobi, Kenya, you now know where to make your first stop. Crowds regularly line up to enjoy this feeding time phenomenon.

Of course, all the visiting children love watching the children of other species being coddled and fed. As do the grownups - it’s just our natural desire to connect. Watch these baby elephants feed and you’ll feel more human than you have in ages.

I think this deep reaction is because elephants are emotional creatures – recognizably emotional. They can be happy or sad, show envy, jealousy and even display tantrums if they don’t get their way. Right now, these loveable babies were getting their fill while the keepers stroked their heads like mothers do everywhere.

The little elephants had the faraway look in their eyes I remember from my own kids when they were filling their tiny bellies. Hell, I still get that look when I slurp up a perfect spicy tuna roll. It’s the glazed gaze that sees only contentment in this world.   

Dame Daphne Sheldrick 

To survive out on the African plain, an elephant must feed on its mother’s milk for the first two years of life. But how do you feed a baby who’s been orphaned? And what exactly do you feed it?  The answer: elephant formula. The best in the world was developed right here. It is just one of many accomplishments from the woman who started this Elephant Orphans Project, Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick.

Born in Kenya, Daphne Sheldrick had spent her life working with her husband David raising and caring for many wild species. After David died, Daphne created the David Sheldrick Trust for orphaned elephants. Here they are raised and healed, not just physically but emotionally as well.

My video crew and I witnessed how deeply Daphne and the sanctuary’s keepers invest themselves emotionally in the lives of these orphans. Each baby has its own little stable where it’s cared for by the orphanage’s keepers– elephant nannies.

After feeding, the keepers lead the babies to their homes for their afternoon nap. But unlike we humans, who put the baby down and walk (or sneak) away, here the keepers lie down with their young calf. We videoed gentle scenes of baby elephants and keepers lying down on adjoining beds. The keepers gently stroking the babies to sleep.

The youngest of them, the infants, are tended to 24 hours a day, the keepers sleeping with them through the night. They work in shifts so the babies grow accustomed to being surrounded by a caring family just as they had before they were orphaned.

The Baby Elephant Stork

Do you remember in the Disney movie, “Dumbo”, how all the baby elephants are delivered by a fleet of gently floating storks? That’s not how it works here in East Africa.  

The reality for these orphaned babies is a bit tougher. They have been separated from their herd because of drought, accident or often because their mother, and perhaps their family, were killed – poached for their ivory.

When the orphaned infants arrive at the nursery, they are not only physically malnourished but are in a state of grieving for their lost mothers. This period of mourning can last months and their keepers must maintain physical and emotional contact with the babies, giving them as much affection as their elephant family did. This is vital for the new orphan’s survival, for if it doesn’t feel loved, it will perish.  

Family is every bit as important to elephants as it is to us. At the orphan sanctuary, even the older babies show maternal and familial instincts. Along with the keepers, the 3 and 4-year olds nurture and share their love with the new infants, helping them to adjust and survive. Babies helping babies – it’s the elephant way.

Babies’ Bath

As with babies everywhere, bath time is a not to be missed ritual. But here, instead of washing and getting squeaky clean, baby elephants prefer mud and lots of it. We scramble alongside the babies photographing them as they are led to the mud pool. There, they jump in, slide and slither about covering themselves with the cool mud. The babies play and roll onto their backs as their keepers throw yet more dirt to cover them. Fun.

The mud actually acts as a sunscreen for their young hides, preventing sunburn. At this age, the infants are constantly fussed over – if the temperature drops, they are blanketed. When the sun burns hot, you’ll see as we did, their keepers holding umbrellas over them for shade.  

And so it goes, month after month, year after year. As the babies grow and are weaned off the bottle, they begin eating vegetation – plants, leaves and bark. All of this leads to their eventual reintegration back into the wild - the wild being the East Tsavo National Park in Kenya.

The young elephants are brought to rehabilitation areas in the park where they are gradually assimilated into the wild herds. True to the elephants’ reputation, the older orphans living in the wild never forget their former keepers and travel distances to visit with them.

Sometimes these now wild orphans will take one of the “juniors” living in the rehabilitation area out for a trial “sleep-over” in the wild. But sometimes, just like with our children, these young elephants feel insecure without the comfort of their family. Instead of a phone call in the night, several of the ex-orphans will escort the youngster back to the security of its keepers. They will try again another time.  

This has been the way of life here for over 40 years of caring for orphaned elephants. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has now hand-raised over 200 infant elephants and reintegrated over 100 of the orphans back into the wild.

Parallel Play

The guys and I have traveled many places but nowhere we visited ever felt less like work – the spirit of play here was undeniable. And so it was, as we videoed the babies kick and swat a soccer ball to each other and their keepers. Just like us, some were better than others, but everyone was into this game of kick ball… or trunk ball. Also just like us, for the moment, nothing mattered but the ball. When it came our way, we jumped at the chance to pass it to a waiting baby elephant.

Daphne Sheldrick has said that if you really get to know elephants you can see all their emotions. This doesn’t just mean when things are not going well but also when they are having fun and being happy. The woman who started this refuge decades ago says you can actually see when a baby elephant smiles.

I can’t say I was in tune enough with the orphan elephants to detect a smile, but I can swear, playing with them in the field that day, I did hear those babies laugh. 

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