(video at the end of the article)
When we were organizing our trip to Kenya, we were sure we wanted to concentrate on safaris. Our goal was to visit as many national parks as possible and to experience as much wildlife as we could. It was our first safari trip ever, so, even though we love to have a taste of the local culture, this time there would be no museums or city walkabouts – we would dedicate the trip entirely to animals. What started as an 11-day trip became a 15, and then, 17 -day trip. You can tell we were excited.
At first, Nairobi was going to be just our entry and our goodbye point. But since after some research we realized that the safari trips would be very tiresome, we decided to allocate an extra day in Kenya´s metropole in order to rest and walk around. We had no idea how much of a life changing decision this would be.
When searching for what to do in the city, the Nairobi´s National Park kept popping up. Though the reviews were good, for us, it made no sense to use our rest day to engage in yet another safari trip, even if it was within the city and would require no real travel. What new stuff could someone possibly see after a 15-day safari trip to some of the most important ecosystems of the world?
An orphanage. Though the Nairobi National Park itself didn´t interest us at all at that point, a very special part of it did: the Sheldrick´s Wildlife Trust´s Orphans´ Project. This program is just one of the many the Trust engaged in saving and protecting wildlife in Kenya has. With veterinary units that give assistance to animals in need, an anti-poaching arm that hunts down poachers, and an aerial unit that patrols different parks, their Orphan Project is the one globally known. After all, this is the place where magic happens. I mean, real magic, where the unthinkable comes true.
The Orphan´s Project was set up inside the Nairobi National Park in order to welcome and raise abandoned wild babies found by aerial and ground units in different parks throughout the country. Most of the animals raised here are elephants. They might have been orphaned for different reasons – drought, poaching and men-wildlife conflict being the main causes behind the mothers´ death. Since they are milk-dependent on the first years of their life, they would never be able to survive alone in the wild, being an easy prey for predators like lions and cheetahs. Many are found wandering alone, others by the body of the mothers.
That´s so sad, Vivi, you are ruining my Saturday. Hang in there! Remember the magic I told you about? This has a (very!) happy ending, I promise.
In Nairobi, the elephants follow a joyful routine filled with milk bottles (a ground-breaking formula developed by Daphne Sheldrick), mud and sand baths, and walks inside the Nairobi National Park. The only time that they are confined is at night, when each goes to their own stockade for a green meal and a rest from the day. But even there, they are never alone: each elephant sleeps with a keeper. The keepers ensure that the babies feel safe, and also, that they receive their precious milk bottles every three hours! These keepers spend months without seeing their own families in order to raise these babies right. They are real life heroes.
The magic of this project is that the elephants are not raised to be dependent on humans or to settle for a constrained life. The Trust in Nairobi takes care of them for their first 4 years. After that, they start their transition back to the wild, being transferred to one of the Trust´s reintegration units inside other national parks. There, the keepers help them on their path towards independence but, at the same time, still giving them a routine and a safe place to go back to. This is a life that they will slowly miss less and less after a taste of the real world and finding a new elephant family in the wild. Yet…not so fast! This process can take up to 10 years! So far, the Orphan´s Project has raised 262 elephants and 17 rhinos. Additionally, there are already 36 babies born to wild-living orphan elephants, and 1 baby rhino. Paraphrasing Coldplay, call it magic, call it true.
The orphanage can be visited for one hour every day from 11am to 12 pm (it is closed now due to covid-19 though). This is the time the orphans rush back from a morning in the park to get their milk. You can witness them running to the bottles and some getting very naughty once they are done! The morning we visited one of the babies got mad when the keeper took the empty bottle away from him…he couldn´t believe it was already empty and demanded it back with a very loud trumpeting, lol. It was so unexpected I nearly dropped my phone. After the feeding, the orphans still stick around for a long and fun mud and sand bath. A friendly advice? Don´t wear white!
While you witness this playground come alive, one of the keepers will introduce each elephant and share a bit of their sad stories. Yeah, it can be hard to listen to, because you come to realise that not only these wild animals have to try to overcome the harsh laws of nature, but also to survive men´s greed and ignorance. Still, this is not a story of sadness, it´s a story of legacy. Even though these animals arrive at the orphanage traumatized (some even between life and death), they slowly begin to readapt to their new life, to make new friends, and, most importantly, to believe they can be happy again. Roho, the new family member that had arrived only 2 weeks before we visited the Trust, was super feisty and even tried to charge the keeper during our visit. Today, he´s fully adapted and one day will be living wild again. The re-integrated animals are so thankful that many come back to the reintegration units to visit their human friends and show newborn babies.
The one-hour visit to the Trust costs at least $7. The “at least” means that that´s the minimum fee, but they will be very thankful in case you want to pay more – afterall, it´s not cheap to raise babies that big! Another option is to adopt one of the elephants for $50/year, which will give you access to a special hour with the orphans. This is done by appointment only, happening every day at 5pm, when the elephants return to the stockades for the night.
At this time you can witness them coming back from the forest (from much closer and without a barrier), and visit each one of them in their stockades. I strongly recommend the adoption, if you can, because there´s much less people, you can caress the animals, and you can talk to keepers on a one-on-one basis. These are people with a crazy amount of experience in raising elephants, therefore having a lot of rich information to share if you are like me and want to know the behind-the-scenes juice! It was then that we learned that in the earlier visitation hour Roho was not playing but, in fact, being aggressive towards the keeper; that the elephants hide behind the keepers for protection once they get scared of something in the national park; and that our baby Luggard would soon be starting his reintegration journey (and he did indeed a week ago!).
Once you adopt an elephant, besides getting an adoption certificate, you also get access to many features on their website. By logging in, you can read all the latest detailed updates on all the units (Nairobi nursery and reintegration units), take a peek at the keepers´ diaries, you can download a beautiful watercolor drawn by Angela Sheldrick which is available every month, get early access to their videos and see exclusive photo galleries. My favorite part of it all is the keepers´ diaries. You can read what happened day by day with pictures!
At the beginning of the article I said this was a life-changing experience for me. I wasn´t exaggerating. The visit to the Trust and the adoption taught me so much. It raised awareness that it wasn´t enough for me to thoroughly research if the recues I visited abroad were treating their animals right: they had to have a commitment to reintegrating these animals to where they belong. Sheldrick Trust taught me a lot about love towards animals, something I thought I mastered. It confirmed to me what I knew, that real love is to let go, giving them back to their natural habitat; but that this commitment to wildlife can also mean to “let go” of having a life of your own, like in the case of these amazing keepers. To them, my deepest respect.