Dedicated keepers at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's Nairobi Elephant Nursery in Kenya protect baby Shukuru from the cold and rain, and the risk of pneumonia, with a custom-made raincoat. www.michaelnicknichols.com
Dedicated keepers at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's Nairobi Elephant Nursery in Kenya protect baby Shukuru from the cold and rain, and the risk of pneumonia, with a custom-made raincoat. www.michaelnicknichols.com

Orphans No More

After the trauma of attack and loss comes healing—and a richer understanding of the emotions and intelligence of elephants.

Along the northern rim of Kenya's Nairobi National Park, a mysterious array of brightly colored wool blankets can be seen draped over the gnarled branches of some of the forest's upwardly braiding croton trees. Set against the region's otherwise drab browns and greens, the hanging blankets could be construed as remnants of some ancient tribal ritual—until shortly before five each evening, when their function as part of a new interspecies experiment becomes apparent.

Off in the distance a few upright figures in bright green coats and crumpled white safari hats appear, calling out names in trilling, high-pitched voices: "Kalama!" "Kitirua!" "Olare!" All at once baby elephants emerge from the brush, a straggled procession of 18 flap-eared brown heads, their long trunks steering their bulbous heft with a heavily hypnotic grace. They come to rest beneath the color-draped trees, where the keepers tie a blanket around each one for warmth before resuming the trek home.

Home is the Nairobi nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the world's most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. The nursery takes in orphan elephants from all over Kenya, many victims of poaching or human-wildlife conflict, and raises them until they are no longer milk dependent. Once healed and stabilized at the nursery, they are moved more than a hundred miles southeast to two holding centers in Tsavo National Park. There, at their own pace, which can be up to eight to ten years, they gradually make the transition back into the wild. The program is a cutting-edge experiment in cross-species empathy that only the worst extremes of human insensitivity could have necessitated.

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