The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant and rhino orphanage inside the western end of Nairobi National Park, offers a wonderful opportunity to meet staff caring for baby elephants, and sometimes baby rhinos, which have been orphaned by poachers, or have been lost or abandoned for natural reasons.
The trust was run for many years by Dame Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her husband David Sheldrick, the founding warden of Tsavo National Park. Dame Daphne died in 2018, but the hand-rearing methods and substitute elephant milk formula that she developed over many years of trial and error will outlive her and are now being replicated across Africa.
During the hour-long open house, the elephant keepers bring their juvenile charges out to play for an hour between 11:00 and 12:00. After some ad hoc football games and mud baths, the elephants and their keepers come up to an informal rope barrier stretched along one side of the ‘playground’ from where you can easily take photos. Each keeper gives a short presentation to the visitors nearest to him, explaining how orphaned elephants need to be cared for. The youngest infants are assigned keepers for individual 24-hour guardianship, a responsibility that includes sleeping in their stables. Without the love of a surrogate family and plenty of stimulation, orphaned baby elephants fail to thrive: they can succumb to fatal infections when teething, and, even if they survive, can grow up disturbed and unhappy and badly prepared for reintroduction to the wild.
Rearing orphaned rhinos and elephants
Rehabilitation is one of the Sheldrick Trust’s major preoccupations. For rhinos, which mature at twice the speed of elephants, this involves a year or more of walks with their keeper, introducing the orphan’s scent, via habitual dung middens and “urinal” bushes, to the wild population. Many of Nairobi National Park’s rhinos grew up in the Sheldrick nursery; the last surviving member of Amboseli’s famous long-horned rhino herd was rescued by the Trust in 1987 and is now a successful breeding female, having been released in Tsavo East National Park.
In the case of elephants, which mature at about the same rate as humans, the process of reintroduction is closely attuned to the individual: outgoing elephants are encouraged, while they are young, to meet wild friends and potential adoptive mothers, again through walks with their keepers, most often in Tsavo National Park. More traumatised elephants take longer to find their feet. Matriarchs who were Sheldrick orphans themselves, such as Eleanor at Tsavo East, have been responsible for adopting many returnees.
The excursion to the DSWT elephant orphanage turns out to be a mini-highlight for many visitors to Kenya – a shining example of conservation and animal welfare work combined with genuine behavioural research to help protect a species that is always under threat.
You can visit DSWT from any of our hotels in the Nairobi area on any day of the year except Christmas Day – no pre-booking is required. If you’re staying at Giraffe Manor, The Emakoko or Nairobi Tented Camp, a visit can easily be incorporated into the activities that are included in your stay (although the orphanage is inside Nairobi National Park, park fees are not payable, and the actual DSWT entrance fee is a nominal charge, paid on arrival) – just let us know you would like to go. If you’re staying at another hotel, we will book a driver-guide and private vehicle for you, and you can incorporate other Nairobi visits into the same half- or full-day private vehicle use. The driver will pick you up and drop you back when you choose.