An hour with orphaned elephants

Now that I have lost my blogging virginity, I feel confident enough to come back for a second time and try some more-adventurous moves. In the current climate of bad news, fake news, pointless news and despair, it’s easy to forget that there are inspiring people and organisations that are doing great things to make our planet a better place. So this blog will be used to share some positive stories.

First up, allow me to entice you with some baby elephants!

Enkesha accepts some food
Enkesha is learning how to use her trunk, after it was damaged by a snare.

Meet Enkesha, who was found weak, distraught and severely injured in the Mara Conservancy area of Kenya’s Maasai Mara.  Tragically, she was spotted with a poacher’s wire snare almost severing her trunk, and she was in tremendous pain.  Although amongst a large herd of wild elephants, including her mother, an examination by the Mara Mobile Veterinary Unit and Kenya Wildlife Service, the Veterinary Officer determined that she would have to be operated upon or risk losing her trunk.  For an elephant this is potentially life threatening – a elephant’s trunk contains an estimated 40,000 muscles (consisting of 150,000 muscle fascicles) and is used for breathing, smelling, touching, grabbing, lifting, drinking, bathing, swimming and communicating.  Significantly, trunks are used to suck up water so that elephants can drink, and have two dexterous extensions at the end of the nose that allow them to grasp food and bring it to their mouth. Without a functioning trunk, Enkesha was highly unlikely to survive in the wild.

So on 11th February 2017 – my 40th birthday – one-year old Enkesha was temporarily patched up in the field, before the difficult but life-saving decision to remove her from her family was made, and she was airlifted to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s elephant orphanage in Nairobi.  Here she underwent a 3-hour operation to partially reconstruct her severed trunk, and began the slow road to recovery.

Orphaned elephants develop strong relations with their keepers, who commit to elephant conservation for the long term.

In September I had the pleasure of meeting Enkesha whilst visiting the DSWT elephant orphanage in Nairobi. Since 1977 DSWT has successfully rescued and raised over 190 orphaned elephants, with the mission of reintegrating them back into the wild herds of Tsavo National Park. The Trust was set up by Dame Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her late husband, naturalist David Sheldrick, and is currently managed by their daughter Angela – continuing the family tradition of wildlife conservation.

The Orphans Project rescues young elephants who have become separated from their mothers and/or wouldn’t survive in the wild, and rehabilitates them at the nursery. The individual elephants’ stories are heart-rending, and many arrive traumatised – from being rescued from trapped wells, found like Enkesha trapped in disfiguring snares, or discovered alone and terrified following the massacre of their mother by poachers (see here).

Feeding time at the orphanage

The nursery aims to provide a stimulating and caring environment which gives the orphans the best possible chance to recover.  This can’t be easy for the baby elephants – unfamiliar with (kind) humans, and without their families from whom they learn how to be a successful wild elephant.  Yet through round-the-clock hour care from a professional and dedicated team of keepers, and the company of other young elephants, most orphans gradually recuperate and get to experience happy times.  The keepers act like a foster family to the youngsters – even sleeping alongside. Importantly the keepers are all local people with a long term commitment – not well-meaning short-term, foreign volunteers (as in some conservation projects).  This not only creates local jobs, it also aims to reduce the risk of the orphans (re-)experiencing emotions of attachment and loss as their would-be carers come and go.  A keeper’s role includes feeding the infants a special milk formula every 3 hours. This enables the young elephants to build up strength – and get up to mischief!

At DSWT the orphaned elephants are fed a special formula designed to be a substitute for their mothers’ milk.

Everyday for just one hour tourists are allowed to witness the orphans having a seemingly-delightful mud bath and being fed. It enables some up close and personal encounters with these characterful and social creatures.   It is in these circumstances that I encountered Enkesha and her friends, who at 11am each day come scampering excitedly from their shelters to a cordoned-off area of mud pools and feeding stations in Nairobi National Park. Here they gambol, play, bathe, eat, drink and are merry – and occasionally interact with the dozens of tourists that flock daily to the nursery witness these awe-inspiring animals.

This young ellie enjoys a mud bath at DSWT in Nairobi.

I’ve always loved observing elephants in the wild – their intelligence, emotions, social-interaction and family politics make for captivating viewing that’s much better than watching an episode of EastEnders.  They are perhaps my favourite African animal. I’ve seen elephants at close quarters on several occasions – once our vehicle being rammed by a rightly-disgruntled adult in Sri Lanka as a result of an irresponsible ‘wildlife guide’ driving too close; and I fondly remember being captivated by scores of elephants frolicking in water just yards away from me at the excellent submerged-hides in South Africa’s Madikwe game reserve.  Nevertheless, my one-hour in the company of these happy young elephants at play at DSWT was one of my most memorable animal encounters.  The gasps and looks of joy on the faces of my fellow tourists – including Kenyan school children – implied that I was not alone in my appreciation.

Feeding time at DSWT
Young elephant at DSWT’s Nairobi nursery, which is open to viewing by tourists for one hour each day.

At one moment a young elephant, seeing me squatting down to get eye-level photographs, came over to investigate – wrapping his trunk around my arm in what I interpreted as a moment of inquisitive tenderness.  For me it was a special encounter that I’ll always remember.  Usually as a wildlife photographer I refrain from getting too close to (wild) animals, preferring to observe rather than influence animal behaviour.  This occasion seemed to be on the young elephant’s terms, and afterwards he trotted back to his mud bath to continue the fun and games with his friends.  Yes he is in captivity at present – but this is not a zoo and one day he’ll be ready to go back to live a wild life.

Enkesha drinking at DSWT
Enkesha’s trunk was damaged by a poacher’s snare – meaning she has to adapt her drinking method.

Seeing little Enkesha trying to use her disfigured truck to drink water was also quite emotional for me – thinking that a fellow human being caused this (although perhaps not intentionally).  She resorted to drinking directly with her mouth from a large barrel.  Would she have survived if left in the wild? It’s debateable, but what’s for sure is that she appeared a happy little ellie here at DSWT, and was slowly but surely adapting to her circumstances.  Hopefully one day she might be able to fend for herself.

After half an hour eating, playing and bathing its time for the young elephants to head back to their quarters – with some more enthusiastic than others!

Whilst the elephant orphanage is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Nairobi, more importantly a visit to the orphanage also contributes to the conservation of these amazing animals in the wild.  As well as supporting the running of the nursery, the funds generated from tourism and other fundraising activities are reinvested into mobile veterinary teams, education programmes, anti-poaching initiatives, aerial surveillance, research and community outreach activities in Kenya.  This is absolutely vital.  In Africa as a whole, the population of wild elephants has fallen from an estimated 26 million when Europeans first arrived in Africa in the 1500s, to 1.3 million in 1979, and now just 400,000 (source).  That’s a decline of 30% in the last 40 years.  This means that in the whole of the African continent – an area three times the size of the USA – the population of wild elephants is roughly equivalent to the human population of New Orleans (USA), or Wichita (USA), or Nottingham (UK), or Kisumu (Kenya), or Bochum (Germany), or Halifax (Canada), or Cusco (Peru), or Canberra (Australia), or…. you get the picture.   Think about that for a second.

Aside from the fun, adorable side of the orphan’s project, the purpose of the DSWT is ultimately to ensure that the population of wild elephants in Kenya is allowed to flourish.  Elephants in Kenya and other African countries are under enormous pressure – not just from well –publicised ivory poaching, but also from habitat loss, expansion of the agricultural frontier and climate change.  All of these factors are caused by us humans, whose activities are squeezing, fragmenting and disrupting elephants’ populations and natural ranges.

Pretty well hung for a 6 month old!

DSWT plays a valuable role in stemming the tide.  Over 190 elephants have been raised by the nursery to date, graduating when they’re deemed ready to one of three ‘rehabilitation stockades’ in the Tsavo ecosystem, a kind of halfway house that prepares the elephants for gradual integration into the wild herds of the Tsavo Conservation Area.  Proving that good things come to those who wait, this process may take up to 10 years!  It’s worth it, however, and the ultimate measure of success of this whole initiative is that many ex-orphans have become parents themselves since reintegrating – ensuring the next generation of elephants can live wild and free. One day Enkesha will join them.

Herding elephants
The young orphaned elephants head home after feeding time.

You can support the Trust’s work by fostering one of the orphans (like Enkesha), making a donation and, like me, visiting their orphanage next time you’re in Nairobi.  For more information visit or follow on Instagram @dswt.

And don’t forget to follow me too for more photos and stories of conservation, travel and development from Africa and beyond (@broadhurst.tom).



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