Ugh, I have been so bad at writing about Kenya! I don’t know why. It truly was an incredible trip and I do want to get those memories down on paper – er, screen – before I forget many of the details. Also, I want to share more of my photos! I have a thousand beautiful wildlife images sitting in my files that could be put to much better use. I find it easy to get distracted by politics, and I suppose I still have some lingering awkwardness over the potential frivolity of travel compared to some of my heavier topics. I also have so much less confidence in my travel voice compared to my political voice (which is ironic given that travel was initially the main focus of this blog). However, I spent days walking around with baby elephants, and it was incredibly special. It seems like a waste not to share that.
Although poaching has decreased a lot in recent years, it has been a big problem in Kenya for many decades. Elephants are particularly at risk given that their ivory tusks are so valuable. This means there are often baby elephants left orphaned after poachers have killed their mothers. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s core project is their elephant orphan program, which is the most successful orphaned elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world (they also have an orphaned rhino rehabilitation program too, along with numerous projects aiming to safeguard the natural environment, increase community engagement, address animal welfare issues and provide veterinary assistance to animals in need). After an elephant orphan is identified, a team from the SWT comes to collect the baby from anywhere in Kenya and transfer them back to the elephant orphanage in Nairobi, which is where the rescue program begins.
Eventually, the elephants will be reintegrated into the wild, but they spend the first couple of years of their life – until they are about four years old – in the orphanage in Nairobi. During the day, they wander in Nairobi National Park under the watchful eye of their keepers, before literally running home in the evening to complete their bedtime routine. Visitors are allowed to spend a few hours at the orphanage in the evening, watching as the little elephants receive their 6pm bottle of milk and some leaves on which to chomp. It is clearly demanding work for the keepers, as each elephant needs to be fed gallons of milk every three hours, 24/7. The keepers even sleep in the elephants’ little rooms (on a raised platform) to protect them and give them their milk during the night.
These tiny babies were so sweet. They honestly sprinted back from the forest into the centre, heading straight for the bottles of milk and their own rooms. I don’t have a lot of photos of this visit, mainly because photos of elephants ‘trapped’ in small rooms felt weird, even though I feel confident that it is truly in the interest of their wellbeing and survival. As with any animal orphanage, it is worth digging deeper before your visit to check that the animals are being treated with respect and that it is actually a vehicle for conservation. The SWT has long history of caring for Kenya’s wildlife and protecting elephants across the country, so we felt sure that this orphanage was about animal welfare, not tourist dollars or photo ops. That being said, dark photos of baby elephants in their little huts trying to eat leaves still didn’t feel as right as pictures of them padding around in the wild.
“Being a tourist” is a whole mood from a travel perspective, and this was probably the closest we came all trip to a large group of other travellers. It was… not necessarily flattering, to say the least. It’s not that anyone behaved badly, as such, but that there was a lot of elbowing other people out of the way to take photos on a crappy camera phone, ordering the elephants to turn around for better pictures (fortunately, the elephants did not seem bothered by these requests) and just being very loud in what was clearly an otherwise calm place. It definitely made me think about how I move through the world, and made me decide to quietly put my camera away.
After our few days in Nairobi National Park, we flew to Tsavo East, an enormous reserve that is home to the next stage of the conservation program. We stayed in a tiny camp called Ithumba and spent hours each day with the thirty-five adolescent elephants that lived in Tsavo. These elephants tended to be around 4-10 years old and received much more individualised care depending on their exact age. Some elephants still received bottles and bottles of milk each day, whereas others only eat hay, leaves and other solid foods. The elephants spend most of the day walking with their keepers, though the elephants pick the route and are allowed a decent amount of freedom to wander. The head keeper, Emanuelle, told us that when the elephants are old enough they start to wander off for a night, two nights, three nights until one day they just don’t come back at all. It’s a very gentle, self-directed reintegration program that has worked for hundreds, if not thousands, of elephants over the decades.
During the day, the only mandated activity is a stop at the watering hole. Tsavo East is experiencing a drought that has been going on for multiple years, so enough water to satiate thirty-five excitable baby elephants is hard to come by. The solution is that someone collects water from a river nearby (though not close enough that that could be the stopping point) and fills up deep wells for the babies to drink from. However, it’s not just the orphans that are affected by the drought; wild elephants also know that fresh water will appear every day and often stop by to drink and wash. We visited the watering hole twice and were lucky enough to see both the orphans and wild elephants drinking and washing in the heat of the sun. Most of the orphans also receive milk at this point too.
There is a similar ritual in the evening, back at camp. After a long day of walking, the orphans receive ‘cubes’ – a grain-based snack – milk and leaves before retiring to their cubbies for sleep. There are deep pools just outside the camp gates that are filled up for the orphaned elephants, but as with the midday watering hole, wild elephants also often turn up. One evening, between the wild herds and the thirty-five orphans, there were ninety elephants drinking and snacking at sunset. It was astonishing. We also turned up at 6am one day to see the orphans having their morning milk and slowly starting their daily meander into the wild. There were a breathtaking number of wild elephants there too.
Elephants are truly amazing animals. Emanuelle regaled us with stories of herds bringing injured ex-orphans back to the camp, because they knew this was a place to receive help. He still recognises every orphan and ex-orphan immediately, and told us their names as he pointed them out in the crowd. He said the ex-orphans always bring their wild-born babies back to the camp soon after birth, just to show them off, as if to say: “look what I made!”
Am I crying? No, of course not. Someone’s just cutting onions nearby, or something. Shut up.
At one point, a wild herd was drinking from one of the pools, when another herd emerged from the plains and started to approach. The males started trumpeting at each other. “Is that a dominance move?”
Emanuelle smiled. “No, they are just saying hello!”
Sure enough, herds of females and babies, adolescent males and whole family groups merged seamlessly, with orphans, ex-orphans and wild elephants alike eating and playing together.
Though we had to stay back, a few of the curious elephants would approach us, both at the watering hole and the camp. Emanuelle would let us know if we were okay to reach out a hand. “That one is naughty,” he’d say, pointing at coy nearby elephant. “He wants to hit you with his trunk.”
“She is friendly,” Emanuelle then said, turning to his other side. “You can say hello.”
We gently got to stroke the ears and heads of these majestic animals, quaking a little as we did so from the specialness of it all. One of them even reached out to hold Jake’s hand. Excuse me while I melt.
In terms of the efficacy of the program, the numbers speak for themselves. There are so many happy, thriving elephants now reintegrated into the wild, animals that would have died without a mother to feed or raise them. While it’s one thing if the elephant’s mother died of natural causes, it’s another when the orphan has been left due to poaching, a decidedly unnatural cause of death for its mother. It was heartwarming to see not only these happy elephants, but also the dedication with which their keepers care for them: living in the middle of nowhere for weeks on end, walking obscene distances each day and even sleeping in their enclosures to ward off poachers and provide bottles of milk. A lot of effort goes into keeping these elephants hale and whole.
Emanuelle did say that, without a herd’s guidance, the ex-orphans do tend to be slight oddballs when it comes to typical elephant behaviour. However, he said that established herds often take these little eccentrics under their wing anyway, letting them join the herd and walk off into the wild.
The trip we took through Kenya was slightly unusual given its heavy focus on elephant conservation; very few people ever make the trip to Ithumba. However, I couldn’t be more glad that these spots featured on our itinerary. While much of Kenya’s wildlife is truly wild, it’s also true that the extensive system of national parks is carefully regulated and protected, particularly from poachers. While it may seem jarring to see humans interfering with nature in an area known for its wildness, the truth is that humans have been interfering with the natural patterns of animals for as long as we’ve been around. At least this way, we end up with more glorious elephants roaming the plains, gleefully spraying mud onto themselves to cool their backs, playing with friends and teaching the even littler ones how to eat, drink, walk and play.