At a facility located on the edges of Nairobi National Park, a small crowd of smiling people stands quietly. Adults and children from countries around the world line up along a rope that surrounds a large area of red dirt. Within the paddock are puddles of water, hills of soft russet soil, newly cut branches thick with green leaves, and a large wheelbarrow filled with oversized milk bottles. The play area at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust baby elephant nursery is ready for the youngsters that brought so many people here.

A collective gasp and sigh from the crowd announces their arrival.

Coming in at a brisk walk is a group of 13 African elephant calves, escorted by their dedicated human nannies who wear green coats and white safari hats. The elephants know the routine. Each heads toward a man toting two enormous milk bottles. It’s meal time, and the calves have their priorities in order. First comes milk, then comes play.

A baby elephant explores a freshly cut tree branch in the play area. A baby elephant explores a freshly cut tree branch in the play area. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

No trip to Nairobi is complete without a visit to the facility at the forefront of one of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking tasks in the world. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescues, rehabilitates and releases orphaned elephant calves. It is the world’s most successful facility for this work, critical to the survival not only of these orphaned calves but to the species as a whole. Elephants worldwide are rapidly disappearing.

“When not being killed for their tusks or for bush meat, they are struggling against loss of habitat due to human population pressures and drought,” notes National Geographic. “A 1979 survey of African elephants estimated a population of about 1.3 million. About 500,000 remain. In Asia an estimated 40,000 are left in the wild. And yet even as the elephant population dwindles, the number of human-elephant conflicts rises. In Africa, reports of elephants and villagers coming into conflict with each other appear almost daily.”

The victims of these conflicts are not just the adult elephants. Calves often end up in the diligent care of the Trust. Some are orphaned after becoming trapped in a bush meat snare, others fall into abandoned wells near the sides of river banks. Too many, just weeks or months into their lives, are orphaned when poachers kill their mothers.

A baby elephant is dependent on its mother for milk for the first two years of its life, and it takes another two years to wean off the milk completely. If an elephant loses its mother during these early years, its chances of survival are slim.

Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick started the Trust in 1977. She was the wife of David Sheldrick, a founding warden of Tsavo East National Park. In his honor after his death, his wife founded the Trust and began the most successful baby elephant and rhino rehabilitation centers in the world. But it took time and a lot of trial and error.

The challenges of raising baby elephants

Elephant calfs play at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Elephant calves play at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust nursery. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

Dame Sheldrick raised myriad animals as she grew up in Kenya and into adulthood alongside her husband. But elephants posed a special challenge due to their sensitive diet needs. Getting the milk formula just right was one of the first issues she had to overcome. After losing several orphaned calves, Sheldrick finally found the combination that worked — human infant formula and coconut. With that blend, she became the first person to successfully raise an infant elephant calf dependent on milk.

Milk is the first challenge of raising an baby elephant. The second is family. Elephants are extremely social animals, and youngsters need affection from each other and parent figures to thrive. This is the critical care that the caregivers at the nursery are able to provide — food for milk-dependent youngsters for years on end, and the ongoing affection that only family can give one another, even if your family is a mix of elephant and human. The caregivers working at the Trust will even sleep in the stalls with the orphans so they are never alone. As highly social and emotionally advanced animals, love and support is as critical to a baby elephant’s survival as milk.

Visitors can pet the elephants that approach them for affection. Visitors can pet the elephants that approach them looking for affection. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

The final piece of the rehabilitation that the Trust provides is a chance for the elephant youngsters to return to the wild. After that four-year mark, a calf is taken from the orphanage in Nairobi National Park to holding facilities in Tsavo National Park, where they can meet wild elephants and learn the nuances of social dynamics as they slowly reintegrate into a wild herd.

The resilience of the orphaned elephants is inspirational. They’ve lost their families and often endured injury by the hands of humans. Yet their gentleness, playfulness and affection for one another and their human caregivers is readily visible. It is this uplifting and encouraging resilience that draws hundreds of people each day to the center.

Opening eyes and hearts

The baby elephants have a second chance to learn how to play, socialize, and build skills they'll need for returning to the wild. A baby elephant kicks around a soccer ball set out as an enrichment toy. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

In the one hour a day that the orphanage opens to the public during the elephant’s mud bath and “recess” time, the Trust has a chance to reach the hearts of some 200 people at a time. The visitors consist of people from countries all over the world, including those where ivory trade persists, ranging in age from toddlers to grandparents. Our small group joined the crowd one morning before embarking on a safari with Oceanic Society, a perfect time to gain a crucial perspective on elephants before seeing them in the wild.

While everyone is there primarily to see cute baby elephants within arm’s reach and perhaps pet one, many leave knowing far more than they expected about the plight of elephants and the extent of human-elephant conflicts. Everyone leaves with a desire to help.

The baby elephants have a second chance to learn how to play, socialize, and build skills they'll need for returning to the wild. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch) The baby elephants have a second chance to learn how to play, socialize and build skills they'll need for returning to the wild. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

So far, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has successfully raised more than 150 infant elephants. These babies have been brought up over the course of years before they finally, at their own pace, rejoin their wild kinfolk in Tsavo. The Trust also has witnessed orphans become parents, with wild-born calves raised by the elephants who once were raised by humans.

The future of these elephants, though, is still in human hands. We are the cause of their possible extinction and the hope for their survival. If you would like to help the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust continue its mission of rehabilitating orphaned elephants and protecting wild elephants against poaching, you can foster an orphan or make a donation to the Trust.

Elephants are orphaned for a number of reasons, but whatever the reason they receive a second chance thanks to the work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Elephant orphans receive a second chance thanks to the work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.