since becoming the the first person to hand rear newborn elephants, daphne sheldrick, featured in the first picture, has spent over half a century helping to care for more than 140 of kenya’s orphaned baby elephants.
sheldrick operates her nursery and orphanage - named after her late husband, david sheldrick - with the help of 55 keepers, each of whom is charged with becoming a full time around the clock parent (and with the help of about 20,000 people who “foster” an elephant online).
but it is the elephants who chose their parents and the keeper who must ingratiate himself to them and earn their trust.
one keeper, mishak, is loved best. sheldrick says he’s “a simple man…but he’s got a deep love in his heart for the elephants, which is unusual because he comes from a poaching fraternity. he can persuade an elephant to live when it wants to die.”
when baby elephants first arrive, they are traumatized from having witnessed the slaughter of their mothers and family by poachers. grieving can last several months, and they often lose the will to live. unable to fend for themselves in the wild, and dependent on their mother’s milk, they also arrive in poor health.
many also find it difficult to socialize with the other elephants. but keepers are quick to encourage socialization (as seen in the third photo), which is the best way to get them back in good health and spirits. the elephants care for one another, and the older ones are quick to nurture the younger ones (the sixth photo shows older elephants lying down so younger ones can play on them.)
ultimately, the elephants are released back into the wild, but they often return for medical care and to show off their own children. as sheldrick says, “their sense of family is as strong as ours… all the females are very maternal, even the young ones. the caring and nurturing is far greater in elephants than it is in humans, and loyalty and friendship endures.”
“they are just like us. only better,” she continues. “they’re not corrupted. their memories are amazing and their convoluted thinking and reasoning is equal to that of a human.”
photos by brent stirton (previously featured) and mike nichols. see also: daphne sheldrick’s memoir, “love, life and elephants - an african love story” and these previous posts on the keepers of the orphanage and on the emotional and intellectual lives of elephants