Guide to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage

A baby elephant being fed a bottle at the David Sheldrick Trust Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi, Kenya
Anouk Zijlma

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust operates a world-famous elephant orphanage in Nairobi. You may have 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. Dame Daphne has worked with elephants for over 50 years and, through trial and error, she finally concocted a winning elephant 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.

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. The Trust has helped a remarkable number of orphaned elephants survive based on round-the-clock care by a team of dedicated keepers.

Once elephants are old enough, they are transitioned back into the wild at Tsavo East National Park. Here they meet and mingle with wild elephants at their own pace. The transition can take up to ten years for some elephants and 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. Young elephants come trotting out of the bush to greet their keepers who stand at the ready with giant bottles of milk. Some of them can feed themselves, and some are still fed by their keepers. For the next 10-15 minutes you can watch each little one gulp their meal. 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.

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 or 20 minutes if you are staying in Karen. Getting there requires a car, but 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.

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).

There is a small entry fee. Once inside the park, 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 dedication and hard work it takes the keepers to keep the young elephants happy and healthy. Feedings occur every three hours around the clock, and 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 their 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 they go to bed, at 5pm, without the crowds of tourists.

Rhino Orphans

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. 

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