Orphan Elephants Always Gather To Hug This Woman

She worries about getting them through their teething problems and providing the perfect milk formula. She wants them to feel like part of the family, but does not want them to get too attached to any one parent. She hopes she’ll be the sort of mother who treats them with respect and understanding.

Except Dame Daphne is talking about a very special type of baby: the elephant kind.

The 80-year-old grandmother was the first person ever to hand-rear a newborn African elephant in the Seventies and she is still doing it. For more than half a century she has looked after orphaned elephants — rearing more than 190 — most of whom lost parents to poaching. Today, she has more in her care than at any other time.

Rescuing an orphan elephant is not easy. Up until three years old a baby elephant is totally dependent on milk (they cannot have cow’s milk and it has taken Dame Daphne almost three decades to get her home-made formula right; its base is premature baby milk imported from overseas).

Most orphans arrive to her traumatised and in poor physical health. Her organisation charters a plane to bring each from around Kenya to her home. Each elephant costs in the region of $900 (£550) a month to care for.

“Every single orphan found is a needle in a haystack. What we see here is just a fraction of the baby elephants lost through poaching. They die like flies,” she told The Standard. “They are emotionally human animals, so you have to think in human terms. How does a child feel when it has lost its whole family and is suddenly in the hands of the enemy?”

And yet with “tender loving care”, she assures me that the babies’ lives can be turned around. Each animal has its own stable or a stockade, and for those under a year old, they have a keeper who sleeps with them.

The elephants are bottle-fed every three hours. The keepers rotate, so the orphans do not get too attached. They watch the babies at all times, protecting them with blankets when they get cold, rainwear when wet and even sunscreen during the first two months of life.

Once ready, orphans are moved into one of Dame Daphne’s relocation centres, based in Tsavo National Park. There are currently 41 elephants there, which means she has more than 70 orphans dependent on her.

She has come a long way from looking after her first orphan — in her bedroom — many decades ago. Dame Daphne set up the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in 1977, to commemorate her former husband and the first warden of Tsavo East National Park.

She and her daughter — Angela, the executive director — do not just run the orphanage. The Trust also runs a rhino orphan project, eight anti-poaching units, two mobile veterinary units, habitat protection projects and outreach work, among other things.

But it is the orphanage that has put the plight of the African elephant on the map. The babies have drawn the likes of actresses Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman and Kristin Davis (now the Trust’s patron) to the bush.

The scheme is funded through its fostering programme; thousands of people have signed up. But the aim is always to release the elephants into their natural habitat. More than a dozen orphans have gone on to have wild-born babies, Angela tells me with pride.

“We have made 53 rescues this year and some babies come with the most horrific wounds. You could get gloomy and lose hope, but we never do. This is a fight that has to be fought and won.”

The fight she refers to is the poaching epidemic. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2011 had the highest levels of poaching in 16 years — with almost 12 per cent of Africa’s elephants killed.

Dame Daphne, whose memoir An African Love Story was published by Penguin last year, said poaching is happening at an “unprecedented” rate.

“There is only one solution to poaching now and the secret lies in China. The world’s got to drive China to ban all sales of ivory,” she said.

“This animal should live 70 years. Killing an elephant is a terrible crime.”

Space for Giants, the beneficiary of the Independent’s Christmas Campaign, provides training to anti-poaching units to combat the newly resurgent, organised criminal threat from poachers. Money raised will be used to create a sanctuary where elephants will be safe, forever.

To learn more about the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and its conservation work, including the Orphan’s Project, and to make a donation please go to http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/index.asp