Elephants That Survive Massacres Scarred For Life

Editor’s Note: These three stories came out the same day. It seemed natural to blend them all. Thanks to the warriors and caretakers at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Thanks to the reporters who prepared and presented these important stories.

Elephants Never Forget Horrors Of Poachers

A baby elephant, who was found guarding the body of her dying mother, has been rescued and is now rebuilding her life in Kenya’s only elephant orphanage (more on the orphanage below). Zongoloni spent the last moments with her mother who died from wounds inflicted by poachers hoping to steal her tusks and was found grieving by a wildlife rescue team two months ago.

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But the one-year-old calf has found new friends in the keepers and other orphaned elephants at Kenya’s only elephant orphanage in Nairobi National Park and is ‘strongly willed’ and a little greedy, as her rehabilitation begins. In September a gang of poachers shot at the animal and while a mobile veterinary unit tried to remove shattered bone and treat her wounds, they could not rule out the possibility of a bullet still being embedded within the bone and were worried about her future.

Two weeks after the attack the large elephant collapsed and could not stand, leaving milk-dependent Zongoloni to guard her, even though the calf was scared and confused. Sadly, the Kenya Wildlife Service had to euthanize the mother who was in crippling pain from her wounds and after spending final moments with her mother, the calf was tranquilized and flown to Kenya’s only elephant orphanage, based in Nairobi National Park to recover with other young victims of the ivory trade.

At the orphanage, Zongoloni now spends time with calves and keepers 24 hours a day, travelling with them as a group during the day, and sleeping alongside them within a stable at night.

Keepers in Kenya told MailOnline that Zongoloni was initially understandingly very untrusting of them, given her experience with humans so far. However, she is slowly building bonds with the people who care for her that will last a lifetime. ‘In Zongoloni’s case, since her rescue she has been grieving for her lost family and during the day, chooses to spend some time alone,’ they said.

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‘Like humans, elephants grieve for their loved ones just as acutely and so this is completely natural and a process that the orphanage has seen many times over. The daily routine of the orphanage and constant contact with the other orphans, including her friends Oltaiyoni and Lima Lima who she enjoys to walk with, provides respite from the grieving process and keepers hope that in the next few months it will gradually subside.

Zongoloni’s keepers said she is a ‘very independent and strong willed little elephant.’ ‘For many orphans, losing their mother can prove too much to bear and many lack the will to survive through this loss, but Zongoloni’s strong spirit shows she has chosen the choice of “life” and she is a survivor – something that will aid her in years to come during the reintegration process,’ they said.

‘At the moment, she is very greedy for her milk feeds and dairy cubes from the Keepers and loves her hand-picked greens.’ While Zongoloni is still grieving her mother, her unique personality is emerging and the keepers said some of the orphans, like Kithaka are incredibly mischievous and ‘enjoy teasing visitors and engaging in lots of pushing bouts’. Zongoloni is one of the quieter elephants in the herd but she still plays in the mud bath and socializes with the other orphans.‘Each orphan that reintegrates into the wild has their own traumatic story that they have overcome,’ the charity said.

‘The young calves are hugely vulnerable and because of this it is vital the interaction between elephant and keeper is sustained.’ However, because elephants are so emotionally intelligent, keepers are alternated regularly to avoid an extra level of distress for an orphan if their chosen keeper is away.

Daphne and Angela Sheldrick right at home

Daphne and Angela Sheldrick right at home.

‘In the past, we have sadly experienced the death of an orphan due to this separation, as young elephants are known to pass away due to a broken herd (and heart),’ the charity said.

‘The care and love provided from each Keeper is paramount to the survival of the orphans and we ensure our locally employed Keepers are with us for around 10 years to avoid added emotional distress for the orphans,’ it added. Bottle feeding is a relaxing time for the orphans and the keepers regularly hang large blankets when the elephants are feeding because it gives them an extra level of comfort as calves rest their trunk on the blanket as they would their wild mothers.

‘It is our duty to protect these vulnerable elephants, I will never stop being a Keeper’ said Goya Golicha, a keeper at the orphanage.Zongoloni will be released into Tsavo Natural Park when she is ready, which might be when she is between eight and 10 years old. The charity said it is difficult to predict the future of the orphans due to the current poaching situation in Africa, but many of the elephants revist the orphanage with their wild born calves to welcome new arrivals and often when they have been injured by poachers or hidden illegal snares.

In a few years Zongoloni will join the older orphans at either Voi or Ithumba Reintegration Units to slowly become accustomed to a wild life among Tsavo’s famous herds to start her own family. She is one of 49 infant elephants rescued by the DSWT this year and her story shows the real cost of an ivory poaching crisis that kills a staggering 36,000 elephants across Africa every year (and rising). Elephants with calves and entire herds are slaughtered for their ivory, prized in the Far East in countries including China, for ornaments and figurines.

Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the DSWT said: ‘Individual personalities and family histories are lost each time an elephant is slaughtered for its ivory, with innocent milk-dependent calves like Zongoloni paying the price for man’s greed for ivory.

‘In these terrible times for Africa’s elephants, our anti-poaching teams and mobile vet units are on the front line against poaching everyday providing immediate aid and protection to wild elephants and rescuing those that are found orphaned.’

The DSWT charity is currently looking for people to ‘foster’ elephants for £30 a year.

In a related story:

Elephants that have survived a cull, or witnessed members of their family being poached can suffer from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, a new study has suggested. Elephant culls were a conservation tool in South Africa between the 1960s and the 1990s, because park managers worried that too many elephants in a closed area would lead to the destruction of the habitat.

During a cull, helicopters would round up herds of elephants and kill all of them except the youngest. The surviving elephants would then be shipped to different parks.

Scientists have known since the late 1990s that many elephants had psychological damage after seeing their families killed en masse, and it has long been considered as a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, recent research has revealed that the scale of the impact of violence upon an elephant’s mental wellbeing is far greater than previously anticipated.

Elephants are social animals; the young elephants whose families are poached or culled grow up without the guiding influence of their families often do not learn the necessary skills to survive on their own.

Scientists played the orphaned elephants the sound of an older, dominant, strange female elephant. Naturally socialised elephants would create a defensive formation, however, elephants whose families had been culled did not react to the threat at all.

Mass killings are also likely to have an impact upon the numbers of elephants that are born, as previous studies have shown that herds led by the oldest individuals with the most experience had the highest number of calves.

Richard Connor, a cetacean biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, told ScienceNOW: “It is difficult to not conclude that the legal killing or illegal poaching of elephants is not only inhumane, it is barbaric.”

In a related story:

When Daphne Sheldrick talks about her babies, she sounds just like any other mother. 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 79-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.

There’s Zongoloni, the 21-month-old orphan who lives in the nursery at Nairobi National park, Kenya, alongside 29 others, who are aged from just a few months to three years old.

Zongoloni was found at 18 months old, standing guard by her dying mother, who had been shot weeks  earlier by a poacher. The orphan had resorted to drinking her mother’s urine to survive.

Then there’s Quanza, the two-year-old found by the side of her murdered mother and two sisters — both shot by poachers. She was so fearful of humans that it took her four months to interact with her “human family” at her new home. Now she is nestled right next to a keeper.

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 percent 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 visit: http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/index.asp

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