Bead & Reel Life | The Elephant Orphanage
by Sica Schmitz | Posted on March 10 2017
It all started a few years ago when I stumbled upon the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust on Instagram. At first it was an occasional casual enjoyment but it quickly escalated into one of my favorite daily activities as I became rather enamored with the adorable orphan elephants at this magical faraway sanctuary.
I thought I loved all the elephants equally but one day I saw this photo of a shiny baby elephant freshly lathered in his weekly coconut oil. I took one look at that face and I knew, When Harry Met Sally style, that he was the one for me. Luckily my long term partner (LTP) took note and on my next birthday he gifted me with a year of fostering this little guy, who turned out to be named Ndotto - which means dream in Swahili. It's the name of the region he was rescued from (the Ndoto Mountains) but also I'm pretty sure it's also because he's so darn dream-y.
Ndotto, just being dreamy. Photo from David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
I started receiving monthly updates on Ndotto and his hilarious antics and totally fell in love with him. I would talk about him to anyone who would listen (or, even if they wouldn't listen), sharing his stories and bragging shamelessly about all of his accomplishments including being named a Faithful Friend (because obviously he's a really good - actually, the best - friend). It became quite clear to me that not only is he the funniest and kindest baby elephant ever to walk this earth but that he is also the smartest and cutest too. I realized I must go visit him ASAP.
After much planning and anticipation I finally set off to meet him last January. I boarded the plane with all the enthusiasm in the world and it quickly vanished when my 3 hour layover in Istanbul turned in to a 2 day layover due to a freak blizzard. So I waited, sitting in my price-surged hotel room, unable to get another flight out of the country, very hungry while the hotel restaurant refused to make any vegan food (is some hummus too much to ask for, really?), and freezing because I didn't have any winter clothes with me. Basically I was pretty miserable, and when my airline tried to keep me there for 2 more additional days I thought about my Faithful Friend and got serious. I had an elephant to get to. I braved the blizzard, caught a taxi, went to another airport in another city, caught the first available flight to anywhere (which happened to be to Qatar) and finally arrived the following morning in warm, sunny, elephant-filled Nairobi.
The DSWT is inside the Nairobi National Park (which is the only national park in a major city, in the whole world!), and each day there is a public feeding at 11 a.m. where anyone (for a small donation) can see all 24 baby elephants be fed their lunch by the Keepers. The Keepers are these amazing men in green coats who raise and love and watch over the babies for a minimum of 10 years (since raising a baby elephant is a long-term commitment). They are basically like super heroes as far as I am concerned.
Large crowds gather around to watch the babies drink their milk, roll around in mud, and play with each other. On a side note, the milk is made from human baby formula, the only thing the fragile stomaches of elephants can handle besides elephant milk, which is rather difficult to come by.
The daily public feeding
I arrived a bit late (well, 2 days and 20 minutes late... not that I was counting) and the viewing area was already filled and the elephants were well into their lunch. I moved around to the very far side of the rope in order to see better, and then one of the babies started walking right towards me. He dipped under the rope divider which was supposed to keep us separated and stood next to me, looking at me quizzically. My mind was racing about how amazing it would be if this turned out to be Ndotto but I knew the possibility of that was slim. Even if I did just suffer through 2 days in a blizzard for him and really the very least he could do is have the decency to greet me....
I started petting the baby on his rough and bristly skin and asked who he was. The Keeper said it was Ndotto, and basically my heart exploded.
Elephants are known for their wisdom, magic, and intuition. People who spend a lot of time with elephants can share amazing stories of their intelligence and their mysterious ways of knowing things. And yet these ancient, awe-inspiring creatures are in great danger. In 2015, more elephants were killed than were born, and some estimates show elephants may become extinct within the next decade, mostly due to poaching and habitat loss, both caused by humans.
This tragedy is why most of the baby elephants are at the orphanage, having lost their mothers to some form of human conflict. Ndotto has been living at the orphanage since he was 2 days old.
It's very important to steal your friend's water before they can drink it
In the evening, foster parents can sign up to visit the elephants at bedtime (5 p.m.). This intimate gathering consists of about 10 - 20 people, unlike the large crowds at the public feeding. The babies are brought in from the Nairobi National Park where they have spent the day playing and learning and are then tucked into their "bedrooms" each night, safe from predators. The youngest babies have Keepers who spend the night with them to feed them every 3 hours, just like a human baby.
It's very important to steal your friend's food before they can eat it
The babies will live like this for 3-4 years in the nursery, and then will "graduate" to 1 of 3 reintegration units in Tsavo Conservation Area where they will grow and learn until they are adopted into a local wild elephant herd. To date, the DSWT has raised and reintroduced over 150 elephants, and many of the adult orphans will come back to visit, even bringing along their own babies to introduce to their human family. There have been 25 babies born from DSWT orphans so far!
Ndotto (left) is such a Faithful Friend
Many of the Keepers have been working at the orphanage for decades. It's a serious commitment since elephants get easily attached and will need to have the same people around throughout their childhood (calfhood?), especially after the trauma of being orphaned. The Keepers work 30 days at a time and then get 4 days off and then start over again. They are true heroes who sacrifice much of their life to raise these vulnerable creatures.
During my stay I got to know Jackson, one Ndotto's favorite Keepers. He adores all his babies and has been raising and caring for them for almost 20 years, and I am so happy to know that Ndotto is in such loving hands.
Jackson and Ndotto
My first day at the orphanage I adopted another baby elephant named Luggard, who I gifted to my LTP so he could share in the joy of elephant obsession too. Luggard was shot several times as an infant and has quite a bad limp, and though he is healing, he will never regain full use of his knee. I absolutely don't understand what kind of monster could shoot a baby elephant (or, any elephant), and as soon as I saw this innocent little guy struggling to keep up with his nursery herd I knew I needed to have him as a part of my family as well.
Little Luggard. Despite his damaged back knee, he is so full of optimism.
One day I brought gifts for our babies. I had visited a women's safe house in the largest slum in Nairobi (I will share more about that in a future post!) and had bought 2 handmade blankets from the artisans who work there. When I showed up for the foster parent visit that evening, Ndotto immediately reached out through his bedroom gate and started grabbing for one of the blankets with his trunk. He clearly knew it was for him and I was thrilled to discover that my elephant is so passionate about supporting women's empowerment and fair trade. He's a Faithful Friend & Feminist.
He proceeded to play with his blanket the entire time I was there, and finally ended up wearing it, because he's also a trendsetter and style icon in case I haven't mentioned that yet.
Luggard was given his blanket too, though he was far more polite about it.
Luggard with his neighbor Kiko, an orphan giraffe
My heart was heavy on my last day in Kenya as I went for my last evening visit. I walked over to Ndotto's bedroom but he was tucked in the back, eating his pile of trees and ignoring me with great focus. Usually he was very social and playful at my visits, but that day he wouldn't even look at me, and my heart sank even more. I had wanted a proper goodbye, but it didn't appear that was going to happen.
I walked around the nursery and said goodbye to all the other babies - including Luggard, who had gone to sleep early that day. I made it back to Ndotto's room with just 3 minutes to spare until the sanctuary would close for the night. I told him, "this is my last chance to say goodbye and I'm going to miss you so much and I love you." He slowly started walking towards me, reached out his trunk, and planted a huge wet kiss on my face. It was the only time he had done that with me. Then he went back to his corner, and I left with tears falling down my cheeks.
Me + Ndotto = Love
Several weeks later I received his January journal update. He'd had a busy month, causing mischief with baboons and being a Faithful Friend (& Feminist). But then, in the January 19th entry, this photo and note caught my eye:
Today Ndotto doesn’t seem to be in his normal mood and it is as if there is something bothering him... We are not quite sure but he has been keeping to himself and browsing away from the herd, not interacting with anyone.
That was my last day visiting the sanctuary - the same day he gave me a goodbye kiss. He had known when I arrived, and he knew when I was leaving too.
Fortunately, according to his journal, he was back to his usual happy self the following day (I don't want him to be too miserable without me). I will truly always cherish the life-changing days I got to spend with him and will never understand how anyone could harm such these beautiful, sensitive creatures.
Shortly before I had left for Kenya, a friend had done a tarot reading with me about my trip. She said I was going to meet my soulmate in Kenya, and I had kind of laughed because I wasn't really in the market for a soulmate. However, if a soulmate means someone who has my heart, who I will protect every possible way that I can, and who I absolutely cannot wait to see again, then she was absolutely right.
You can foster your own elephant soulmate here.
Photos by Sica Schmitz unless noted otherwise