Right before I left San Francisco, I got to attend the premiere of the new Disney 3D documentary, "Born To Be Wild" - me, and a lot of little kids:)
The film spotlights the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which operates in Kenya. It takes in orphaned baby elephants and rhinos, raises them, and then reintroduces them into the wild. I'm sure you will not be surprised to hear that as soon as I saw their work in the film, I immediately began mentally planning to visit the organization while I was in Kenya this summer:) Since time is quickly moving along - I have less than a full month left in East Africa - I decided that today would be the day that I would go visit the org's Nairobi location. It's located right inside the gates of Nairobi National Park, which is located in the Karen neighborhood, on the outskirts of Nairobi.
While hanging out with Angela yesterday, I mentioned that I intended to visit the org today. She said that one of her friends was arriving in Nairobi later that night, and might be interested in visiting the org with me today. Laney is from Sacramento, a friend of Angela's from Georgetown, and is here working on her thesis and looking for a job in the environmental and human health field. She was up for visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust today, so we split the taxi fee, using one of Angela's trusted drivers.
The orphaned baby elephants are bottle fed by their handlers every day from 11am - 12noon. Guests are welcomed to visit during that hour, to watch the feeding. So Laney and I built our travel plans with Leonard to make sure that we arrived at the Trust before feeding time. Fortunately we left extra time, because I missed my stop on the bus this AM, on my way to Angela's house to meet Laney and Leonard, and wound up in Kawangare, the slum where Angela and I were just yesterday. Fortunately, thanks to cell phones, I was able to re-coordinate with Laney and Leonard, and they picked me up in Kawangare. I watched nicely dressed Kenyans walk by me on the main road through the slum, on their way to church. Reminder that it was Sunday AM!
It was about a 20 minute drive from Kawangare to the Trust/Nairobi National Park. When we arrived at the entrance to the Trust, it was all taxis, drivers, and mostly wazungu tourists! I suppose I wasn't really surprised, given that if you ask someone what you should do in Nairobi as a tourist, they will likely tell you to visit the Trust:) Leonard left us at the Trust entrance, and said that he'd hang around and then come back to get us when we were done. Laney and I waited right outside of the gate with the rest of the tourists, and were then let into the Trust grounds. It was 700 ksh (about $8) to get in, to watch the elephant feeding. We then walked over to a roped off area, where we stood around and started at the area in front of us, waiting for the elephants to arrive. The area in front of us held several metal basins full of fresh drinking water, a little natural pool with muddy water in it, a soccer ball, and several "stations" of white plastic bottles that we later learned contain a special milk formula. The roped off area really was just a simple rope, but everyone was very patiently and calmly standing around with cameras ready, waiting for the elephants. There were a good number of families with little kids. The crowd size continued to grow as we waited for the elephants, until it was several people deep. Crazy and amazing and wonderful - how many people were there, waiting to see the elephants!
Then the elephants came down the hill in front of us, with their handlers dressed in green uniforms. I had seen the handlers in these uniforms in the Disney film, which made the whole thing even more spectacular - I couldn't believe that I was actually getting to stand there and see the whole thing in person!!! As soon as they elephants entered the roped off area, they immediately went for the white bottles of milk, each one managed by a different handler. The elephants gently semi-jockeyed with each other for access to the bottles, but there wasn't really any competition - there was plenty of milk and bottles for all of the elephants, and it was obvious that they are used to the daily routine and it's a casual thing:) Each handler held the bottle up, so that the elephant could drink from it, but the little elephant in front of us was trying to hold the bottle with its trunk. It was adorable!
The littlest elephants (and they were VERY little) were wearing blankets on their backs. The handler who later gave us all a talk about the elephants said that the little ones wear the blankets to protect them from the cold morning air. We watched one of the elephants directly in front of us lift the dry, red Kenyan dirt from the ground beneath its feet, and then spray and spread it all over its back, presumably too keep cool? It was so entertaining - especially when it laid down in the dust and was rolling around. It reminded me of Sabrina:)
The handler who gave us a talk about the elephants told us the names and ages of each elephant in front of us, their stories about how and where they were found (most are orphans because their parents were victims of poaching), and how the Trust cares for them. Elephants need to be with their moms until they are 2-3 years old, because they continue to drink milk during that time. So therefore the orphaned elephants aren't ready to be released into the wild until they are at least 2-3 years old. The youngest elephant that we saw today was 2-3 months old, and the oldest I think was a little over a year old. There was a significant size difference between the youngest and the oldest, though I have no idea how fast they grow. They can live to be in their 60's, and live in family groups. Since the Trust handlers have taken over as the orphans' family members, they live with the elephants 24/7 for the entire time that the elephants are living at this particular Trust location. Since the Trust doesn't want the orphans to get too attached to just one handler (so that handlers can take days off, etc) the handlers rotate shifts. They even sleep with the orphaned elephants in stalls that look like horse stalls at a barn. Each stall has a mattress for the handler who sleeps with that particular orphan.
When the orphans are more self-sufficient, they are transferred to the Trust's location inside of Tsavo National Park (also in Kenya, more towards the coast). There, the elephants learn to eat solid food (although are still fed milk), and spend more time becoming used to life in the wild. When they are ready to be released into the park, the previously released and now grown orphans all come back, to welcome and escort the newest orphans into the wild. (This is a scene from the Disney movie - one of the best parts of the whole film.) The handler who gave us a talk today said that the wild elephants not from the Trust will not accept the orphans when they are released into the wild because the orphans carry the scent of humans, which is why it's extra valuable and special that the previous orphans now living in the wild come back to welcome the new orphans into their family. Absolutely amazing.
After a while, the group of orphans walked back up the hill, with their handlers. I thought this was the end of it, and was more than happy with the whole experience. But then, another group of older orphans came down the hill with the handlers, also for feeding time. These orphans were more playful - some kicked the soccer ball around with the handlers, played with each other, and then towards the end the handlers encouraged the orphans to come within touching distance of the observers, by luring them with grasses that the orphans wanted to eat. I got to touch two of the orphans, as they got within reaching distance of my place behind the rope. The first time I touched one of the orphans - it was amazing - I felt such a connection to the animal - I can't explain it. I first touched the elephant's trunk, and then the top of its head. Although you can't tell until you touch the elephant, its skin is covered in bristles of hair, and the skin is hard, a little rough, and perfectly dry. Amazing. Then a handler brought a second orphan by, and I got to touch that one, too. It was such an unbelievable experience. The handlers - all men - were so wonderful. I asked the handler who gave us the talk how long he has been working at the Trust, and he said eight years. It is so obvious that the handlers love the elephants, and that the elephants love their handlers. Watching them interact was probably my favorite part of the whole morning.
We learned that if you "sponsor" one of the orphans for $50 for a year, then you can come back to the Trust at 5pm any day that you want, to see your elephant put to bed. You can also request a permission letter from the Trust to gain access to the Trust's centers in Tasavo National Park, where you can obviously see more of the Trust's work. Well you KNOW that as soon as I heard that, I was all about adopting an orphan and figuring out how I can visit Tasavo National Park. Not that I hadn't had this idea, before - it's included in the Rough Guide to Kenya which I read page-for-page earlier this spring - but I hadn't really though that it'd be feasible for me to get to Tsavo by myself, to see the Trust's work, there.
But after Laney and I both filled out the paperwork to sponsor orphans (and a lot of other visitors, too), I got to talk with some of the handlers and one of the Trust coordinators about how to visit Tasavo to see the Trust's location there. It sounds like there are two Trust locations within the park. One is going to be beyond my reach this time (the lodge where you have to stay is $500/night) but I can do the other Trust location easily, and more independently. I'll definitely be heading there before returning to the USA.
Not surprisingly, Laney and I were the last visitors to leave the Trust's grounds, because I was asking so many questions of the staff about visiting Tsavo:) Our guide/taxi driver Leonard was so patient and nice!
We stopped on our way out to see one of the two rhinos that live at the Trust. This rhino was born in the wild, blind. His mother rejected him when he was four months old because he could not see to feed, etc. Fortunatley he found his way to the Trust, where he will be taken care of for his remaining years because he cannot be released into the wild due to his blindness. This was the first rhino that I've seen in East Africa. I have a whole new appreciation for rhinos and rhino conservation, after getting to meet a man whose life work is protecting rhinos in Zimbabwe, at the Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony, which I got to attend before I left San Francisco, as a volunteer.
photo: holding up my "sponsorship" package.
So after leaving the park we had to stop off at an ATM because after "sponsoring" an orphaned elephant (which I hadn't expected to do this AM) I only had 50 ksh left in my wallet, and I owed Leonard 1,000 ksh:) He was so great, and both and Laney let me talk about the things I've been learning about access to higher education, while we were in the car. I've grown quite passionate about this topic ... advance warning for anyone who asks me about my research:)
Laney and I are going back to the Trust's location in Nairobi National Park to see our orphans be put to bed. I chose to sponsor Mutara (who I got to meet today), because she was found on the road between Ol Pejeta and Mutara Ranch, very close to Daraja's campus. She was approximately two months old when she arrived at the Trust in 2009. She was found abandoned and alone and rescued by Mutara staff who alerted the Kenya Wildlife Society (government agency) who enlisted the assistance of Ol Pejeta Ranch. Suspected poaching or drought victim.
If you want to sponsor an elephant, you can do it here. Obviously I think you should do it:)
Leonard dropped us off at Angela's. We all went to lunch at a nearby mall that I hadn't been to yet. I decided I might as well leave for a Maasi Mara safari tomorrow ... booked it after lunch, with the owner of a tour company that came recommended by the owners of the Upper Hill Campsite, where I first stayed when I arrived in Nairobi two weeks ago. So more wildlife photos will be coming ...! :)