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.
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.