Loading...
AnimalsEndangered Species

Orphaned African Elephants Thrive at the Nairobi Nursery in Kenya

In many parts of the world, including Kenya, the elephant population is drastically declining and it is humans that are to blame. Over the past two decades, the elephant population in Africa has declined from 1.3 million to an estimated population of 50,000 Poaching for ivory and environmental changes mark the primary human impact factors.

Unfortunately, the price of ivory is currently soaring to record levels, and this means that African elephants are more at risk than ever, as the Kenyan population attempts to improve its declining economy, which was affected considerably due to the global recession’s effect on tourism in the region. This poaching means that there are many immature elephants left without their mothers, or the means to survive.

Orphaned Elephants at the Nairobi Nursery: Even orphaned babies out for their morning walk from the nursery seem to understand the complex structure of elephant society. Here the oldest orphans lie down to invite the younger ones to play on top of them.

Kenyan Elephant Poaching and the Impact on Young Elephants


Adult elephants are attractive to poachers due to their established tusks. Immature elephants do not offer a source of ivory, as their tusks only break through when they are approximately one year old. Like humans, elephants are not born with their teeth — elephant tusks are actually their incisors. What this means is that many young elephants are left orphaned when their mothers are killed as victims of the ivory trade.

Elephants that are under two years of age require their mothers for feeding, for protection, for learning, and most of all, for affection. Elephants are highly interactive creatures that require loving attention to thrive. Most young elephants will not survive in the wild when they are separated from their mothers.

Orphaned Elephants Rescued by The Nairobi Nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust


The Nairobi Nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is considered the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center .  Young elephants are kept in the Nursery until they no longer require milk feedings. Then, they are transferred to the Tsavo National Park to continue the rehabilitation process. They are not released back into the wild until they are considered ready.

While they are at the Nursery, bonding is essential. The Nairobi Nursery tries to imitate a family structure that is familiar to elephants — a matriarchal family with multiple females that care for them. Elephants feel loss and grief when a member of their family is no longer there, so this stronger support system ensures there is always someone available to deliver what they need. Replicating this structure is important in the nursery to save already struggling elephants from further stress. Socialization with older members of the same species begins when young elephants are moved to the Tsavo National Park as only young elephants reside at the nursery.

The Irony of the Human Rescuing Elephant System

Humans may be primarily responsible for the drastically declining elephant population in Africa. However, in order to survive and thrive, orphaned elephants must learn to trust human beings so they can receive the love and affection that they need as they grow.

Of course, putting an end to poaching and offering greater respect to this species in Kenya and globally would be the ideal scenario for the survival of immature elephants, but, in the interim, these nurseries offer safe havens that prevent further loss.

Photo credit: ©Michael Nichols/National Geographic

See more photos of orphaned elephants at the Nairobi Nursery in the September 2011 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

 




7 comments
  1. Beth Hodgson

    You are actually right on the 5,000 vs 50,000 as that was a typo which may have been misleading. Thanks for the catch. Otherwise, Zachary about summed it up. We covered one angle here and that is not to say that further coverage on the issue, in addition to what is already on the site will not occur. We could easily do a whole series to cover the wealth of information available on a subject and writing online, the line needs to be drawn somewhere per article or it is overwhelming for the average reader. I would encourage you to read some of our other stories on similar subjects if you’re interested in seeing them from us and stay tuned for more in the future! In the meantime, thanks for adding on with further information for our readers and thanks for reading!

  2. Jane

    Sure.

    “Over the past two decades, the elephant population in Africa has declined from 1.3 million to an estimated population of 5,000.”

    -Elephant poaching peaked in the 1970s and 80s, which was 3-4 decades ago. At the time, the wild African elephant population numbered over a million (around 1.2 million in 1979-ish). When the ivory ban was imposed in 1989, there were about 600,000 left. Today, there are around 470,000 spread across the African continent. Not 5,000, as the author suggests. At current poaching rates, 5,000 elephants would be wiped out in less than two months. Thankfully, there are more than that, but for how much longer?
    See the following for references on population estimates:
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/2009/10/19/poachers-still-killing-100-elephants-daily-in-africa/
    http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/elephants/african_elephants/

    As an estimated 100 elephants are murdered for their ivory EVERY DAY (over 36,000 a year!), poaching is THE biggest threat to these animals. This article touches on poaching, but to end this carnage, we must raise awareness about two key things:

    1) Poaching is, currently, the MOST serious threat to African elephants.
    2) Poaching is driven by insatiable demand for ivory, which originates from East and Southeast Asia; predominantly from CHINA and Vietnam. There, ivory is wastefully used to make useless, luxury items that represent one’s social status.

    The growing demand for ivory directly coincides with the vast and rapid growth of the affluent Chinese middle class. The supply end of the illicit ivory trade is dominated and commercialized by organized crime syndicates.
    More info on the correlation with trends in the Chinese economy here:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/14/china-boom-fuels-africa-poaching
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/3295894/Chinese-demand-for-ivory-driving-illegal-trade.html

    Dame Daphne Sheldrick has been absolutely monumental in calling attention to these facts, as they are what allow these orphan-creating tragedies to continue.

    Everyone likes to talk about how cute these little baby elephants are. Yes, they are adorable. However, the truth is, it’s actually extremely sad and worrying. These orphans represent the destruction of ecosystems being driven by greedy lust for money, on every level of the illegal ivory trade.

    It is rather irresponsible to report on this subject, without driving home those realities. Daphne Sheldrick has fought so hard to get this information out there, so that the influx of tragically orphaned ele calves can be brought to an end. To write about her organization, without discussing the Chinese connection, is somewhat of an injustice to both her efforts and to these iconic animals–especially when they are so quickly approaching extinction.

    I appreciate the author’s attempt to cover this article, but as this topic is so urgently pressing, the story is lacking the most critical information.

    She writes:
    “Unfortunately, the price of ivory is currently soaring to record levels, and this means that African elephants are more at risk than ever, as the Kenyan population attempts to improve its declining economy, which was affected considerably due to the global recession’s effect on tourism in the region. This poaching means that there are many immature elephants left without their mothers, or the means to survive.”

    Yikes. I’d be careful with that one. I’d also point out that the poaching “means” the demand is out of control, which has resulted in the growing number of orphans, as opposed to the poaching itself being the cause of this trend. No demand for ivory = no poaching = far fewer orphans.

    1. Zachary Shahan

      Thanks you for the facts. On the poaching part of the story, it is something we cover regularly here and I think the author did a pretty good job of making it clear that this is the cause of young elephants being orphaned. She was focusing on a different part of the story, which was also worthy of coverage, I think.

      Clearly, poaching is a huge horrible crime. I don’t think Beth downplays this, and think anyone who reads the article with little knowledge of the issue must leave feeling disgusted by the poaching taking place.

      We are writing on the matter to bring more attention to the issue — but different types of stories are going to grab diff people and make them care about the topic. Every story cannot be focused on the same thing if you want a broader audience.

      But thanks for adding all this in the comments. Poaching (and the factors that drive it) disturb me greatly and are one of the greatest crimes on Earth today, in my opinion.

      1. Jane

        I understand your points and agree to an extent. However, I think on any article that has anything to do with elephant poaching, it is absolutely the writer’s responsibility to state the two points I mentioned.

        1) Poaching is, currently, the MOST serious threat to African elephants.
        2) Poaching is driven by insatiable demand for ivory, which originates from East and Southeast Asia; predominantly from CHINA and Vietnam. There, ivory is wastefully used to make useless, luxury items that represent one’s social status.

        It takes a whole 2-3 sentences to make those points. The bit about China’s role is fundamental in any article that even mentions the elephant poaching situation. People do not know about this and the information needs to be everywhere if there’s any chance of stopping this.

        It’s simply an injustice to DSWT and Daphne Sheldrick’s work NOT to mention those two critical points. Ask her.

        1. Zachary Shahan

          Well, thanks for chiming in. I thuoght those things were said in the piece, but maybe i’m just so familiar with the topic that i read that now where others might not. Will try to make sure we are more explicit on such points in the futue…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *