The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant and rhino orphanage, inside the western end of the park, offers a chance to see staff caring for baby elephants, and sometimes baby rhino, which have been orphaned by poachers, or have been lost or abandoned for natural reasons. The trust is run by Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her husband, the founding warden of Tsavo National Park, and, during the hour-long open house, the elephant keepers bring their juvenile charges up to an informal rope barrier where you can easily touch them and take photos.
After many years of trial and error, Sheldrick and her staff have become the world’s experts on hand-rearing baby African elephants, sometimes from birth, using a special milk formula for the youngest infants and assigning keepers to individual 24-hour guardianship of their charges, a responsibility that includes sleeping in their stables. Without the love of a surrogate family and plenty of stimulation, orphaned baby elephants fail to thrive: they can succumb to fatal infections when teething, and, even if they survive, can grow up disturbed and unhappy and badly prepared for reintroduction to the wild.
Rehabilitation is one of the Sheldrick Trust’s major preoccupations. For rhinos, which mature at twice the speed of elephants, this involves a year or more of walks with their keeper, introducing the orphan’s scent, via habitual dung middens and “urinal” bushes, to the wild population. Many of Nairobi National Park’s rhinos grew up in the Sheldrick nursery; the last surviving member of Amboseli’s famous long-horned rhino herd was rescued by the Trust in 1987 and is now a successful breeding female, having been released in Tsavo East. In the case of elephants, which mature at about the same rate as humans, the process of reintroduction is more attuned to the individual: outgoing animals are encouraged while young to meet wild friends and potential adoptive mothers, again through walks with their keepers, most often in Tsavo National Park. More traumatized elephants take longer to find their feet. Matriarchs who were Sheldrick orphans themselves, such as Eleanor at Tsavo East, have been responsible for adopting many returnees.