ELEPHANT ORPHANAGE SETS THE BENCHMARK
THE EXPERIENCE OF FOSTERING AN ORPHANED AFRICAN ELEPHANT HELPS HIGHLIGHT THE PLIGHT OF THIS THREATENED SPECIES. BY CARLA GROSSETTI
“Hey Kiasa, come meet your mama,” says Julius Shivegha, an elephant keeper at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. It’s with these few words and the allure of fresh acacia leaves that my foster elephant starts to slowly edge forward toward the opening of the stall.
It’s a profoundly moving experience to officially meet the orphaned elephant, and one I’ve looked forward to for months ahead of my Bench
Africa tour of Kenya, in East Africa.
As Julius tells it, Kiasa was orphaned when her mother died of starvation in the rust-red plains of Tsavo East, which has been gripped by the worst drought in recent history. Poachers also account for about 20,000 deaths of African elephants each year.
“Kiasa came to us when she was about three months old. This was after her mother died of starvation. As most people understand, Tsavo, being the largest park in the country, suffered severe drought last year and so many of the orphans came to us from Tsavo,” says Julius.
“Kiasa is about 14 months old now and she will stay in the nursery until she is ready to be moved to Tsavo where it takes a minimum of five to 10 years to be able to be returned to the wild,” he says.
A GIFT OF LIFE
My first glimpse of Kiasa was via video link footage of her rescue. The second time I see the animal she is thundering toward me with her pachyderm pals, via a muddy path at the orphanage, located in the centre of Nairobi. The orphanage, which was established in 1977 by the late, great David Sheldrick and his wife Dame Daphne, who also passed away in April 2018, is now one of Nairobi’s most-loved attractions.
Julius, who is clad in an oversized lolly-green lab coat and wielding an oversized milk bottle full of baby formula, has been working at the elephant orphanage for 11 years.
“I love my job, which is reviving the life of elephants that would have died. Helping them out to nurse them back to life and send them back to the wild is a great job,” says Julius.
When asked to describe Kiasa’s nature, Julius smiles and gently strokes the elephant’s head: “Nobody should stand in Kiasa’s way; she will always have her way when she wants it,” says Julius.
“Some of the elephants come in and you don’t expect them to survive because we find them when they are as good as dead. With that surviving spirit and the love of their human family we see them pull out and that is a very good thing… to feel like you have saved the life of a living creature,” he says.
HELPING PRESERVE THE ELEPHANT POPULATION
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is now being managed by the Sheldrick’s daughter, Angela, pioneered the science of raising orphaned elephants and returning them to the wild. Since its inception four decades ago the Trust has released more than 230 orphaned elephants back into the wild and currently has 93 orphaned elephants in its care.
Six days after visiting the elephant orphanage in Nairobi, I am on my first game drive safari in Tsavo East with Bench Africa where elephants such as Kiasa are eventually returned to the wild. It’s here, while spotting herds of wild African elephants around the Satao Camp, that my thoughts turn to feisty little Kiasa, who is destined to be reintegrated back into this harsh savannah environment. •
Clockwise from far bottom left: Elephants in Tsavo East preparing to be returned to the wild: Kiasa the orphaned elephant with Julius Shivegha; Keepers feeding the orphaned elephants.