Having just seen dozens of elephants in the wild, I wasn't so sure about my planned visit to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. Animals in captivity, especially in developing countries, can be depressing to say the least. But I'd read Dame Daphne Sheldrick's autobiography - Love, Life and Elephants, and seen the wonderful story about the Orphanage in the National Geographic.
I hoped for the best, and the reality was much, much better. If you are in Nairobi, even for just half a day, then do make the effort to visit this remarkable project. Find out how to get there, when to go, how to adopt your own little elephant, and more details below.
About the Orphan Project
Baby elephants rely exclusively on their mother's milk for the first two years of their lives. So if they lose their mother, their fate is basically sealed. Elephants live a precarious existence these days, many are poached for their ivory, and some come into conflict with farmers as both groups struggle to survive on ever decreasing available resources and land. Dame Daphne has worked with elephants for over 50 years. Through trial and error, and a lot of heartbreak from losing several baby elephants in the early years, she finally concocted a winning formula, based on human baby formula as opposed to cows milk.
In 1987, after the death of her beloved husband, David, Dame Daphne achieved success in rearing a 2-week-old victim of poaching named “Olmeg”, who today is amongst the wild herds of Tsavo. Poaching and other human related disasters followed and other orphans were rescued. By 2012, over 140 infant African elephants had been successfully hand-reared by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust established in memory of David, all under the supervision of Dame Daphne Sheldrick together with her daughters Angela and Jill.
Some of the orphans still don't make it, they can fall sick, or just be too weak by the time they are found and rescued. But a remarkable number survive based on round-the-clock care by a team of dedicated keepers.
Once the orphaned elephants reach 3 years of age, and can feed on their own, they are transferred from the orphanage in Nairobi to Tsavo East National Park. In Tsavo East there are two holding centers for the now ex-orphans. Here they meet and mingle with wild elephants at their own pace, and slowly transition back into the wild. The transition can take up to ten years for some elephants, none of them are rushed.
Visiting Hours and What To Expect
The elephant nursery is only open to the public for one hour a day, between 11am - 12pm. You walk through the little center and on to an open space, with a rope fence around it. The youngest elephants come trotting out of the bush to greet their keepers who stand at the ready with giant bottles of milk. For the next 10-15 minutes you can watch each little one slurp and gargle their milk. When they're done, there's water to play with and keepers to nudge and get hugs from. You can reach out and touch and nuzzle any elephant that comes close to the ropes, occasionally they'll slip under the ropes and have to be chased back by the keepers.
While you get to watch them play and take photos, each baby gets introduced over a microphone. You find out how old they were when they arrived at the orphanage, where they were rescued from, and what got them into trouble. The most common reasons for getting orphaned being: mothers poached, falling into wells, and human/wildlife conflict.
Once the youngest are all fed, they are led back into the bush, and it's the turn of the 2-3 year olds. Some of them can feed themselves, and some are still fed by their keepers. It's very cute to watch them hold their giant milk bottles in their trunks and close their eyes with joy as they make quick work of several gallons of milk. Again, you are free to touch them if they come close to the ropes (and they will), and watch them interact with their keepers, munch on some branches of their favorite acacias, and play with the half drums of water and mud.
Want Exclusive Access?
For an exclusive visit to the orphanage, followed by three days in Tsavo East to see how the ex-orphans are getting along, you can take a safari with Robert Carr-Hartley (son in law of Dame Daphne).
Getting There and Entry Fees
The Elephant Orphanage is inside Nairobi National Park, which is located just 10 kms from Nairobi city center. With traffic, count on taking about 45 minutes if you are staying in the city center. Just 20 minutes or so if you are staying in Karen. You have to have a car to get there, every taxi driver knows what gate to go through to get to the Orphanage. If you have a safari booked, ask your tour operator to include it in to your itinerary when you are in Nairobi. Other attractions nearby include the Karen Blixen Museum, the Giraffe Center and good shopping at Marula Studios (more on Nairobi's top attractions).
The entry fee is just Ksh 500 (around $6). There are some t-shirts and souvenirs for sale and of course you can adopt an orphan for a year as well, but you are not pushed into doing so at all.
Adopting a Baby Elephant For a Year
It's hard not to be touched when you see the orphans, and the dedication and hard work it takes on behalf of the keepers to keep them happy and healthy. Feeding them every three hours around the clock, keeping them warm and playing with them, requires huge efforts and of course money. For just $50 you can adopt an orphan, and the money goes directly to the project. You receive regular updates on your orphan via e-mail, as well as a copy of his biography, an adoption certificate, a water color painting of the orphan, and most importantly -- the knowledge that you have made a difference. Once you adopt, you may also make an appointment to see your baby when he goes to bed, at 5pm, without the crowds of tourists.
I adopted Barsilinga as a Christmas gift for my sons (better than a puppy!). He was the youngest orphan at the time of my visit. His mother had been shot by poachers and mortally wounded, he was just two weeks old when rangers found him. Barsilinga was quickly flown from his home in Samburu (northern Kenya) to Nairobi, where he was embraced by his new family of fellow orphans and keepers.
The orphanage has also taken in rhino orphans and successfully raised them. You may see one or two during your visit, as well as a large blind female rhino. Read more about the Sheldrick Trust's rhino rehabilitation projects...
Resources and More
Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphan Project
Love, Life and Elephants -- Dame Daphne Sheldrick
BBC Miracle Babies, episode 2 - Featuring the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
IMAX Born to Be Wild
The Woman Who Fosters Elephants -- The Telegraph