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How responsible safari holidays can help Africa’s declining elephant population

Nicola Shepherd By Nicola Shepherd
08 Feb 2016
Blog - Kenya - Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage 2.JPG

Three quarters of Africa’s elephant population is declining – how can we help? By supporting institutions and charities which fight against poaching when we travel to Africa. Here is a chance to experience responsible tourism – as well as having close encounters with the elephants!

I have been a long-time supporter of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust as a part of my philanthropic efforts through Philanthropy Plus. I also encourage anybody considering a visit to Kenya to visit the Daphne Sheldrick elephant orphanage in Nairobi, for those who have a little time available. However, the best experience exists in Kenya’s largest and oldest National Park – Tsavo East - where Daphne’s husband, David Sheldrick, was a wildlife warden.

The Sheldrick Trust has built a camp and lodge near the stockades where one can have a close experience with the orphaned, ex-orphaned and wild elephants. This truly is an opportunity of a lifetime, and your stay here directly benefits the wildlife trust.

This camp is simply heaven and an incredible jewel in Kenya’s wildlife crown. Firstly, it offers an unprecedented insight into the lives of these beautiful, fragile, orphaned elephants. After spending three years in Nairobi, the elephants are then transported to Tsavo East – to Ithumba and Voi. There is now a new sanctuary that has opened just opposite the park in the forest, called Umzima Springs, where one can stay, too.

Daily Programme

You wake at 5:30, have tea/coffee, and then are driven by your driver or guide around 10 minutes to the stockade where the elephant calves are.

You then watch them being fed by their keepers, (their 2 bottles of milk) who will also fill you in on all of the calves, their history and their personalities. They then let out all the elephants who mingle with the ex-orphans and any wild elephants, and they feed lucerne to any ex-orphans or wild elephants.

They then all move off together to go and browse for around four hours with their keepers looking over them. After this, you can go on a morning game drive before returning to the camp for breakfast.

The elephant calves (there are presently 18 at the time of writing this and I believe they are due to accept three more from Nairobi) are free to wander wherever they choose, but they remain within earshot of their keepers whilst they disperse into the bush and they respond to commands and their name. When the keepers ask them to stop, they do so!

You then meet at one of the designated watering holes and dust baths at 11.00am where they have a further milk feed of two bottles before you watch them taking a dust bath or bathe in the water.

They literally run up to the keepers, with their trunks in the air, smelling the milk. Up to a hundred other elephants can be here too – both ex-orphans and wild elephants as they intermingle and get to know one another.

In the rainy months, the other elephants tend to find water elsewhere. They bathe in the mud, they play in the dust and it is possible, providing you stay with the keeper, to get very close to them and even possibly to have human interaction with them.

They are curious to smell you as you have a scent they have not come across, and you can touch their trunks, and scratch their heads and walk with them to their dust bath.

Afterwards, they all move off to browse again and you can spend time following them. They wait whilst their keepers have lunch and then all move off into the bush together. Remember, the only people they know and trust are their keepers and by and large they fear humans, which is a good thing!

Some of the naughtier, younger ones are put in their place by the older females, which is interesting to watch, too. Even the two who have been weaned off milk do not try and steal the milk from the others, they are content to stand back whilst the others feed. Quite extraordinary!

After spending this wonderful time with them, you return to the camp where you can relax and read or bird watch (or simply be amused by the ground squirrels ferreting for nuts!) or watch the weaver birds busily preparing their ornate nests.

The elephants return to the bush to continue browsing.

You then have lunch and afterwards, have a siesta. Either go out for another game drive, or return to the stockade at 4.45 to see the calves coming home for their evening feed. They arrive in a group of three, all in an orderly fashion, behind one of the keepers.

The other keepers in the meantime ready their milk supply (they have 5 litres per feed of vegetable formula – so 15 litres a day) before they get their coconut feed of crushed husks and coconut, and then they are left to feed on dry sticks and twigs until the morning. They sleep in the stockade where they are protected against predators.

Weaning and independence

Once the elephants reach five or six years of age, they are then weaned off the milk in preparation for their return to the wild.

They then become semi-independent and about a year after that – the gates are opened and they are free to go. Some elect not to go then – especially if they have suffered deeply from post-traumatic stress, such as witnessing their mother killed by poachers.

The groups are divided into ages, so they can be released as a herd with established relationships. Often, these ex-orphan elephants return to the stockade – sometimes once a week, others once a month, and some even once a day until the bond has broken.

But, they are given the opportunity to be free and live the life as an elephant as part of a herd again – something what would have been unthinkable had they not been saved by this vital and life-saving charity.

The keepers have an outside reservoir or dam which they keep stocked daily. They get through between 30- and 40-thousand litres of water per day. In the dry season, both the ex-orphans and the wild elephants come to drink here on a regular basis. This also gives the orphans exposure to the wild elephants which is an excellent introductory step to freedom for them.

The other times they have returned is when they are ill, or have had a spear from a poacher and they are then brought back into the stockade and medicated until they are well again to return to the wild. This applies to both the ex-orphans and the wild elephants alike. It is extraordinary that they simply know that this place is a refuge and a safe haven for them.

The dry season

The wonderful thing to see in the dry season, is when often herds of ex-orphans return for visits to the stockade and spend time with the orphan elephants. In fact, two success stories have been orphans that have ventured into the wild and finally returned perhaps a year or so later.

One was heavily pregnant and then produced the calf at the stockade, amongst the herd and the orphans. The second came back when the calf was just one day old, to show everyone, and then returned back to the wild for another year.

These are truly heart rending stories. It is lovely to see so many wild elephants coming to the stockade to spend time drinking and having dust baths and to watch them mingling with the ex-orphans, and then returning back into the bush together – as many as 60 of them.

How can you help?

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has a ‘Make a Wish’ gift program where you can buy essential items needed in the day-to-day running of the Trust. If you would like to donate to this worthy cause, you can do so at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Gift Shop.

You can also foster an orphaned elephant and receive monthly updates about your chosen orphan – lovely for all ages but especially great for children to learn and develop a life-long interest.

Or, of course, you can visit this wonderful cause in person! The house is sold on a sole use experience and the elephant experience is totally private.

This is a completely private experience that one has, not with anybody else, and it is worth its weight in gold.