Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Orphanage

Our trip to East Africa earlier this year started in Kenya's capital city of Nairobi. It's a great place to start a safari tour. It's a large population center with a good sized airport and it's centrally located between a number of parks and reserves holding some of the most amazing wildlife in the world. Heck, Nairobi even has its own park inside the city limits. You can look over the wall into the park when you are driving around and may even have to swerve or brake to avoid a baboon on the road now and then. 

Don't worry. While the baboons can get out, the lions can't.

Because the trip we elected to take to Africa was a packaged, scheduled tour that wasn't going to wait for us if we were a day or even a few hours late, we decided we'd get to Nairobi a day early to allow for any delays we might encounter. We knew if weather postponed either our flight out of Washington or our connecting flight from Amsterdam (it's February, remember!) there would not likely be another plane in an hour or two. We'd have to wait a significant amount of time. And that might really mess us up. On the other hand, if everything went according to plan, we'd need something to do in Nairobi. Fortunately everything went according to plan. Or close enough. We needed a plan.

When we started figuring out what to do on our day in Nairobi, there was one spot that stood out as a clear choice: the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a center that rescues, cares for and (if possible) re-releases orphaned animals back into the wild. They specialize in elephants, although they do have other species, and they host a visiting hour each day from 11 in the morning to noon. We decided to make the Trust the centerpiece of the front end of our non-safari agenda. Although, it's sort of safari related after all, right?

The Trust is (perhaps obviously) named after David Sheldrick, who was the first warden of the Tsavo National Park, a property in eastern Kenya set aside in 1948 and now divided into two halves (named Tsavo East and Tsavo West) by the Nairobi-to-Mombasa road and railway. He was stationed there from the founding in 1948 at age 28 until his death from a heart attack in 1977. While acting as warden, Sheldrick had to combat an ongoing and very dangerous poaching problem within the Park's boundaries which often left animals injured or, in some cases, orphaned, if they were infants when their mothers were killed.

David and his wife, Daphne, responded to this orphaned animals situation by creating a rescue program within the park to nurse injured animals back to health or just plain raise them themselves in the case of the motherless animals. The Sheldrick Trust website has a pretty impressive list of creatures raised by these two, including elephants, rhino, kudu, African buffalos, warthogs, impala and zebra. Basically anything that eats leaves or grass no matter how ill-tempered the species may be, and with that comment I'm looking at you, African buffalo! Just no predators.

After David's untimely death in 1977, Daphne decided Tsavo was no longer the place for her and she moved to Nairobi. She moved the rescue and rehabilitation operation along with her and is still involved with the Trust today some 41 years later, although they have reduced their species focus down to specialize in the care of elephants and rhinos.

Here they come!!
The Sheldrick property is located within the boundaries of the Nairobi National Park and there it serves as a protected home for orphans, who can be gathered from pretty much anywhere in Kenya. The staff at the Trust are available 365 days a year to respond to calls about injured or stranded elephants and rhinos who just won't make it in the wild on their own. When they are safely back at the Trust's home base they are rehabilitated in a number of different ways depending on the circumstances, with the ultimate goal to return the animal to the wild. It doesn't always happen but the object is not to keep them in captivity forever. To date, more than 100 orphaned elephants have been re-introduced into the wild.

The Trust also operates an anti-poaching unit in cooperation with the Kenya Wildlife Service to proactively try to stop the number of new orphan cases. It seems like they are having an effect. They have been responsible for the arrest of more than 2,500 people associated with poaching and have removed over 100,000 snares, the traps that poachers use to cripple animals to make them easier to kill. These Sheldrick folks are good people.

I have to say that before I attended the visiting hours at the Sheldrick Trust, my impression was that all the animals there were victims of poaching, which is probably the most visible, violent and offensive of all the forms of human-animal conflict in Africa. I assumed that all the elephants we'd meet that morning (you don't get to meet the rhinos in the group session) were either injured by traps or bullets or were left parentless after their mothers had been killed for their tusks. 

Turns out that's not really true. The introductions to the elephants you get to know in your visit include a description of why each elephant is there. More often than not, they are stranded down wells, waterholes or some other sort of manmade structure. With no way to get the young elephants out, the herd eventually moves on. It definitely highlighted for me that man is dangerous to these animals in ways that I hadn't fully considered.

Feeding time! Cow's milk, not elephant's milk.
If you are staying in downtown Nairobi, it's a little ways to the Sheldrick Trust so you'll need some kind of vehicle to get to there. There are plenty of options around, although some are perhaps riskier than others. Our Lonely Planet East Africa book included directions via bus or matatu (which are basically minivans that have as many people squashed into them as possible) if we wanted to take the most budget friendly option. Those directions, however, included getting dropped off at the Kenya Wildlife Service central workshop about one kilometer from the Trust. One kilometer is not that far to walk but the book mentions you will need to make that trek through the park (remember the Trust is in Nairobi National Park) "which does contain predators." No thanks.

We solved the getting there issue by arranging a day trip around the city with Perfect Wilderness Tours and Safaris which included transportation to Sheldrick and then some other stops. We made our reservation through Viator (which has lots of other options for day trips around Nairobi) although I'm sure Perfect Safaris wouldn't object to you cutting out the middleman and going to them directly. Our guide, Sammy, did a great job getting us everywhere we needed to go while giving us a primer on life in Kenya.

It seems, by the way, that a visit to the Sheldrick Trust is almost a required rite of passage for anyone beginning a safari in Nairobi. All three of our fellow travelers in Kenya visited the Trust before they hopped in our Toyota Land Cruiser with us the next day, and we met two other couples after our balloon ride over Masai Mara that had done the same thing. It's a popular spot and we all got there in similar ways. Doesn't seem like anyone we met was up for a matatu ride followed by a walk through the Nairobi National Park unprotected though.

Seems like two bottles wasn't enough for this guy. He didn't get a third but I guess there's no harm in trying.
If you have been checking out the pictures I've posted on here while you've been reading this post, you may be thinking that it looks like we were hanging out at a zoo. And since I wrote two and a half years ago that I didn't think I could ever visit an elephant in a zoo ever again, maybe a bit of an explanation is in order. Read this loud and clear: this is not a zoo! The only reason these animals are in any sort of captivity is that man either intentionally or unintentionally took away these animals' ability to survive in the wild by killing their family or by crippling them. The elephants in these pictures will be released back into the wild as soon as they can be without endangering their lives. If you ever get the opportunity to get a good look at elephants in a real family (i.e. not in a zoo!) you will understand these babies are just about as helpless as a human baby when they first are infants. They are absolutely dependent upon their families. They need this care or they won't live.

So enough setting up the experience. Let's talk about what actually happened.

As I've already noted, visiting time is from 11 to noon each day. I assume they do this because while getting humans to spend some time with the elephants raises money, I'm sure it is not a natural experience and the intent here is to disrupt the lives of the orphans as little as possible. The gates open a little before 11 and there's a human parade route of sorts down to a orange-red dirt roped off area with a couple of water holes that's, well, exactly like it's shown in the pictures in this post. If you are fortunate, you may see some vervet monkeys along the way to the main event.

Pick up sticks. Testing out how the trunk works. Gotta figure all this stuff out before re-introduction.
Before the elephants arrive, the wheelbarrows of milk arrive along with a cast of elephant caregivers that are entrusted with the bottles ready to feed the calves. No, they haven't gone out and milked some wild elephants; it's cow's milk. The elephants seem to love it and guzzle this stuff surprisingly quickly and greedily while maybe letting a little of the precious nourishment drip down their faces because they are going so fast. Some obviously like it so much that they try for a third bottle. None that we could see succeeded.

The elephants get introduced, fed and shown off in two groups. First the younger elephants, followed by the slightly more mature individuals in act two. The sprint to the wheelbarrow by both groups is hilarious. These animals are really at this point in their lives just like little children. They are rushing and bit clumsy as they run as fast as they can down to get fed. You can see the joy and excitement on their faces as they get to the feeding spot, find a keeper and start drinking.

You can also see a notable difference between the two groups. Whereas the younger calfs are playful and curious and still struggling with their limbs, the older elephants are not. They are clearly way more coordinated with their motor skills (particularly in the trunk department) and act more like humans. And by that I mean there's pushing and shoving and kicking while competing for milk or access to the watering hole or just to pick up sticks laying on the ground. These animals are competitive and petty and jealous of attention. The human-ness of them gets reinforced to me every time I see this kind of interaction.

This guy is pretty close to us. It's almost like you can reach out and touch, which is actually OK.
For the audience, there are some ground rules. First, watch out for elephants pushing against the ropes. The staff will try to get the animals as close to you as possible but every so often another elephant will come in and push or shove the elephant right next to the ropes. Remember these things are 200 pounds and up. They can shove pretty good and you need to watch out for the trees with thorns behind you (do all trees in Africa have thorns?). If they hit you, you will move.

Second, don't crouch down. Crouching down humans look like balls, which elephants like to kick. Don't get kicked by an elephant. It will hurt. We did not crouch down.

Finally, touching is allowed. You read that right: touching is allowed! Where else are you going to go where you can touch the animals you came to see? And they will get close enough to touch so please, take advantage of this opportunity and reach out and feel the bodies of these animals. I imagined leather with some wiry hairs. Not so much. Way softer.

The one hour will fly by. The best takeaway I can give you here is that the 60 minutes you spend will get you an intimate look at the emotions of these creatures, which to me is always the best part about watching elephants. The way they interact is like no other wild animal I have seen in its natural environment. I get that it's not exactly a natural setting at the Trust but you still get an amazing sense of the inter-elephant relationships between these creatures by watching them for two 30 minute sessions. There are so few opportunities in life to do this. In a lot of ways, I got a more intimate look at elephants at Sheldrick than I did in the wild on this trip.

Vervet monkey: what you looking at?
While this is an amazing experience, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust needs our help to keep it going. If you feel you want to help, you can actually adopt a baby elephant (or rhino) for just $50 per year. For that donation, you'll get a profile of your adopted animal along with periodic updates of how things are going. Taking care of a baby elephant costs $900 per year so they need all the cash they can get (although honestly, I'm shocked by how low that number is).

If you actually make it to Nairobi, private after hours visits can be arranged for donors through the Trust. I adopted a rhino named Maxwell (who was born blind and will therefore not likely ever be released into the wild) last year, knowing that we would likely end up at the Sheldrick Trust this February. I didn't make a request for a private visit because of our schedule but this is for sure something I'd love to do if I ever make it back to Kenya. If you feel like making a difference in the life of an animal thousands of miles away from you, the link to donate is here. You even get to pick your own animal!!

Earlier in this post, I mentioned that the folks working at Sheldrick are good people and I quoted a couple of statistics that demonstrate that what they are doing is making a difference. But if you need any more proof that the work they are doing is effective, they told us they get visited every so often by adult elephant mothers who they rescued who just stop by with their own calves just to say hi, as it to say hey, I'm still out here and I'm a success and I have you to thank. I don't know what better measure of success for this place that we need.

Finally, let me say this: elephants are actually grey in color. They also need mud and dirt to protect their skins from the sun. So all the elephants we saw at Sheldrick were the same orange-red dirt that covers the ground. It's OK. They prefer it that way to being sunburned.


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