Written by Chris McIntyre
© Tricia Hayne
Established in 2001 with the aim to ‘rescue, rehabilitate and release’ elephants orphaned as a result of human actions, such as poaching, the Elephant Orphanage Project is based on a similar model in Kenya run by Daphne Sheldrick. Under the auspices of the Zambian NGO Game Rangers International, and with the support of the David Shepherd Foundation, it is one aspect of three elephant-focused projects, which also include park protection and training, plus – crucially – education and awareness. In the long term, it is hoped to extend the remit to include both research, and community development.
By the mid 2011, the unit comprised seven elephants, from the youngest, 11-month-olds Musa and Rufunsa, to the oldest, six-year-old Chidoba. They, like the others, were traumatised on arrival, having lost not just their mothers but also their social bonds within the herd, but with time and care they adapt to both their new companions and the strange environment. The little ones in particular receive protection from Chamilandu, who at just fi ve years old is the only female currently here. Their keepers – ten of them working on a 24- hour rota – form part of a wider ‘family’ network, bottle-feeding the babies every three hours until they are weaned at around two–three years.
The elephants are up early, heading out into the bush at 06.00 with two keepers and a ZAWA scout, and returning only at lunchtime. The afternoon routine is similar, leaving at around 14.30 and returning at 18.00, which allows time for regular monitoring, ranging from measuring the orphans to checking the colour of their tongues as a guide to appetite. At night, for safety’s sake, most of the youngsters are stabled, but as they grow new perimeter fences are being constructed to maintain their security. Already, the youngsters are interacting with the wild population, although it is not until they reach maturity – and full independence – that they have a hope of being accepted into the herd. With an average maturation of around 15 years for males, and from nine to 15 for the females, this is a long-haul project, with each elephant expected to stay at the orphanage for at least ten years.
For those interested in helping, there’s a programme through which volunteers spend a month working in pairs in the areas of community development and education – but emphatically not with the elephants. The project runs during the dry season only, between July and November.