That Time I Met My Adopted Baby Elephant
I love elephants. They’re clever, loving and they can communicate across miles in silence, i.e. at a pitch that humans can’t hear. They range in size and color, depending on which part of Africa you encounter them. In Amboseli, down south in Kenya where it’s arid and dusty, the elephants are massive and grey, like walking ghosts. Up north, in Samburu, they are small, compact and red from the clay.
Wherever they are, they’re bloody fabulous creatures with an astonishing familial system that puts us humans to shame.
Years ago, my husband gave me a truly wonderful present – he adopted an orphaned elephant named Dida for me from the amazing David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. These days the Wildlife Trust is run by the magnificent Dame Daphne Sheldrick, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. Lucky buggers, just imagine growing up in Nairobi, surrounded by elephants, right next door to where author Karen Blixen lived on her coffee plantation.
Dame Daphne is remarkable. She discovered the correct formula for baby elephant milk after others had failed and the babies perished. She kept at it and today, the orphanage is a testament to both her determination and great love for the big-eared giants.
The DSWT employs rangers throughout the country – there are several locations where the “recovered” babies are returned into the wild. Though they are still monitored from a distance, they are essentially free. It’s like graduating from nursery to kindergarten then onto secondary school etc.
Which brings me to the second best gift my husband has ever given me: a trip TO VISIT MY ADOPTED BABY ELEPHANT IN PERSON.
Yes, I was going to actually see Dida! I was sent monthly updates via email, so I knew more or less what Dida was up to and how she was progressing. She had been found down a well, and would have perished had a ranger not found her. Once discovered, she was flown to Nairobi to recover and that was where I was going to meet her.
THE MEETING DAY
As adoptive parents (I know she is just an elephant, but that’s how sponsors are referred to) we had a special time to meet the elephants. At 5 p.m. we would get to see them returning from their day of nursery and help feed them.
Bloody hell, I was so excited I could barely contain myself.
There were about 10 of us hanging around – all adults, most of whom had expensive cameras that had massive zoom lenses. One chap had three cameras. A bit keen. I thought that he was probably doing an article on the elephants.
I looked at the folks around me, wondering which, if any, were fellow adoptive parents. I had imagined most of those that had done the adopting were parents, giving it as a gift to a child. No children in attendance. Odd, but it was a bit extreme to travel to Africa with seeing your elephant as a top priority. (I was in my mid-30s, it was acceptable. Cough.)
At 5pm on the dot, some of the keepers brought the milk bottles out. MILK BOTTLES FOR THE BABY ELEPHANTS. I almost screamed with delight.
“OH MY GOD, LOOK AT THE BOTTLES, THEY’RE ACTUAL BABY BOTTLES, OH MY GOD, WOULD YOU LOOK AT THEM? WOW!” I squealed to the keepers. My husband had disappeared to talk to Maxwell, the blind rhino. I ran over to grab my husband, fell in love with Maxwell (he’s TINY, eeeeee!!) and when I turned around, there they were.
Like a little crocodile of toddlers returning from a walk, they came. BABY FUCKING ELEPHANTS. I actually cried at that point. I’d never seen anything so ridiculously adorable and wonderful. Each had a little green or red blanket over their back to protect them from the sun. They were between knee and waist height, each walking closely with their keeper. One was lagging at the back. There’s always one, isn’t there? He was too busy trying to kick pebbles. Who knew elephants did that?!
What a character.
Each elephant has an assigned keeper that stays with them 24/7 for at least 2 years. The babies will perish without the constant attention. The keepers sleep in the same stall with them. It really is, without break, two solid years of utter devotion.
“I want that job. I will do it. Happily.” I announced to my husband, as I grabbed a milk bottle. “Where’s my baby Dida?”
At that point, I realised that the eight adults were done snapping away and were now feeding the babies. One stall, two people. Another stall, four people. Hold on… they didn’t arrive together. Did they co-adopt? Wait one COTTON PICKING MINUTE….
I swung around and in a very high-pitched, almost hysterical voice, said to my husband: “WHO. IS. THAT. WITH. MY. BABY. ELEPHANT? THEY ARE FEEDING MY BABY, DIDA! MAKE THEM STOP!!!”
My husband, at the moment in time, realised just how devastated I was and probably regretted his decision to make me an adoptive elephant parent. Go figure, Mr. Three-Camera-Man was a co-adoptee, and I do not share well. Neither does he apparently, as he insisted on feeding Dida the entire bottle.
(So, it turns out that anyone can adopt any number of elephants. Sniff. I was not Dida’s only parent. Bloody crushed, I was. Okay, so you probably knew from the outset that it’s not one elephant=one person ratio. Well, clever you.)
I patiently – holding back tears, mind you – waited until the *other* person had finished feeding and petting Dida. It was finally my turn. After almost a year of reading about my little ele’s progress, from near death to reaching her 1st birthday where she celebrated with a cake and football game, I was going to meet the little lady.
Except she had other ideas. She allowed us one stroke to her trunk then walked off to her little bed. See ya.
The keeper said, “I’m so sorry, she’s exhausted from the attention and now she wants to just rest.” In my now semi-permanent high-pitched voice, I managed to squeak out, “Oh, okay. That’s understandable. I’d be wiped out too. Thank you so much anyway.”
A little tear rolled down my cheek, then another one on the other side. Oh god, the shame. I think I went pink. What a dickhead. My husband knew better than to try to console me. If he’d even so much as put a hand on my back, I’d have thrown myself to the dusty ground, sobbing inconsolably, face in the dirt.
As it was, I held myself together, avoided all eye contact with Three-Camera-Man, took lots of pictures with the older elephants and resigned myself to the mentality that a little touch of the trunk was better than anything I could ever have expected a year ago.
As we walked to the car, a keeper beckoned us over, finger over his lips. What could he want with us? (Before you ask: no, I’d not put the milk bottle in my bag as a souvenir. They’re the size of a baseball bat, but I carry very large bags). We walked over, and he took us to a small stall, around the back of the nursery. It was in an area separate from the others and was marked Private. It was the PLACE WHERE THEY HAVE THE NEWEST ADOPTEES THAT NOBODY HAS EVEN SEEN YET!
The lovely man had seen how gutted I was. I could have kissed him. (I didn’t.)
Her name was Onjwela. She was less than 3 weeks old. WEEKS! She was tiny, hairy and adorable. The keeper handed me a full milk bottle and said “She’s yours to feed. This is a secret, OK?”
Guess what? I sobbed. I cuddled her, kissed her and fed her.
I was in heaven. The husband was relieved. I knew she was going to be up for adoption in a few weeks, but for that 15 minutes, she was all mine. I hugged the keeper, probably too hard, but I was so touched that he’d allowed us to see Onjwela.
If you’ve someone that is terribly hard to buy for, or if you just want to help in the ongoing fight to save elephants, adopting an elephant from The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is a wonderful thing to do.
Very, very sadly, baby Onjwela didn’t survive. She passed away a few weeks later. She had been too sick when she was rescued.
PS: It’s true that elephants never forget. Fully grown elephants now living in other parts of Kenya (Voi and Tsavo) still know their keepers. There are rangers/keepers in these outposts to monitor the released elephants. They come back to visit these gentlemen, knowing that they helped in getting them well and back to the wild. It’s really wonderful.
PPS: An elephant nursery keeper job is a tie with the panda nursery keeper job. How to combine both? Anyone?