Lessons of kin­ship from the keep­ers for or­phan ele­phants of Kenya

Hu­man care­givers also learn from an­i­mal in­ter­ac­tion about em­pa­thy with all life forms, writes NOLOY­ISO MTEMBU

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

THE world is enough for hu­mans and wildlife to co­ex­ist, but hu­man greed and de­sire to plun­der not only cause suf­fer­ing to the an­i­mals but also de­prive the hu­man race of valu­able lessons they could learn from their fel­low earth dwellers.

Th­ese are the words of an ele­phant keeper whose years of work­ing with or­phaned ele­phants at the David Sher­lock Wildlife Trust Or­phans Project and wit­ness­ing their plight, has shaped his out­look.

Julius Shivegha has been a keeper for 10 years. Dur­ing this time, he has res­cued and looked af­ter nu­mer­ous ele­phant or­phans, many of whose moth­ers were killed by ivory poach­ers. He has seen ele­phants be­ing re­leased into the wild and has wel­comed some of them back when they vis­ited the project’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tres, either to seek help af­ter in­jury or to show off a new calf.

“They some­times come back home just to let us know they are do­ing fine in the wild,” he said.

Last week there were 33 or­phans at the project, and he in­tro­duced each calf to an au­di­ence of tourists and jour­nal­ists at the Nairobi Na­tional Park. He de­scribed how the an­i­mals were res­cued, their es­ti­mated age, and the cir­cum­stances un­der which each be­came an or­phan.

“On my right hand side is Ngi­layi, nine months old. He was res­cued at about two weeks old all by him­self af­ter fall­ing into a wa­ter hole,” Shivegha said.

It’s just one of many sad an­nounce­ments that paint a grim pic­ture, high­light­ing not only the re­al­ity of the adage “sur­vival of the fittest”, but also the of­ten un­nec­es­sary suf­fer­ing of th­ese gen­tle gi­ants.

An­other calf walks with a limp af­ter be­ing res­cued from a hunter’s trap a few months ago. Shivegha said the young an­i­mal was prob­a­bly left with­out food or wa­ter for days be­cause his fam­ily could not free him from the trap.

An­other calf, whose mother died of nat­u­ral causes, was found al­most dy­ing af­ter be­ing at­tacked by hye­nas in the wild.

The calf was se­verely in­jured and had to un­dergo surgery to sur­vive.

The ma­jor­ity of the calves were left de­fence­less when poach­ers at­tacked and killed not only their moth­ers but many other adult ele­phants in their fam­ily, said Shivegha. “Ele­phants live in herds. When poach­ers at­tack the herd only the baby ele­phants live, the en­tire fam­ily gets killed.”

Ele­phants start de­vel­op­ing tusks at about the age of three years. At that same age they grad­u­ally in­crease their veg­e­ta­tion diet, oth­er­wise de­pend­ing on their moth­ers for milk.

“With­out their mother’s milk and pro­tec­tion of the herd, baby ele­phants are vul­ner­a­ble,” Shivegha ex­plained.

Once res­cued from the wild, the calves are housed in sta­bles at the project nurs­ery, based at the Nairobi Na­tional Park, where they re­ceive med­i­cal and emo­tional care from ded­i­cated keep­ers.

“The keep­ers share the sta­ble with the ele­phants so they can give them the as­sur­ance they need,” Shivegha said, adding that just like hu­man ba­bies, baby ele­phants re­quire af­fec­tion and care to sur­vive. “They do not take cow’s milk, so we feed them baby for­mula called SMA Gold,” he said, adding: “They are just like hu­man ba­bies.”

At feed­ing time last week, calves could be seen jostling their way to­wards their keep­ers to get their milk bot­tles, while the older ones held their own bot­tles with their trunks.

“When they are re­leased into the wild, they form or­phan fam­i­lies and they stay to­gether,” Shivegha said.

The an­i­mals were not tracked with de­vices, but in­stinc­tively re­turned to the keep­ers when they gave birth or needed med­i­cal at­ten­tion.

“I have learnt a lot from th­ese an­i­mals, they have taught me the im­por­tance of fam­ily,” Shivegha said.

● The visit took place dur­ing a Google-spon­sored ex­pe­di­tion to Nairobi, Kenya #GoogleInNairobi*

PIC­TURES: NOLOY­ISO MTEMBU

WALKIES: Dur­ing the day, baby ele­phants take a walk with their keep­ers for some ex­po­sure to the wild and to en­joy a mud bath. At night, they sleep on straw in sta­bles which they share with their keep­ers. The keep­ers ro­tate to pre­vent an an­i­mal be­com­ing de­pen­dent on in­di­vid­u­als.

JUST BA­BIES: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Or­phans Project looks af­ter 33 baby ele­phants in the Nairobi Na­tional Park. The or­phans lost their moth­ers mostly, to poach­ing.

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