The ongoing slaughter of Africa’s elephants has left tens of thousands of elephants dead.
Teased out of these numbers are entire families: mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, fathers, and brothers. Some of them, of course, are babies.
In some instances, in fact, it’s the babies the poachers have specifically targeted. The 2012 poaching rampage inside Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon lasted nearly three months.
Toward the end of the massacre, in which 650 elephants died, Celine Sissler-Bienvenu, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), surveyed the scene.
She deduced—based on the lacerations she found on some of the calves’ bodies—that the poachers possibly used the babies as “a way for a poacher to be trained on killing elephants. Or, we also think it may have been a tactic: To torture the younger elephants to get the adults to come around. So they [could] kill them all.”
The number of calves that have perished in this current poaching wave is unclear. Also unknown is how many babies survive.
And even if a calf manages to outlive an assault, the chance of that youngster making it in the wild without its mother is negligible.
This past March, a baby elephant did make it through a widely publicized massacre in Chad, which left more than 86 elephants dead, including pregnant females. According to Jenny Webb, cofounder of Wildlife At Risk (WAR), a Netherlands-based organization working to help orphaned wildlife, the calf ran 30 miles away from the massacre site, and then ran 30 miles back—presumably to find his mother.
Despite WAR’s efforts to save the baby, Webb says he died a few days later. “[Before I got to Chad] villagers tried to help him, but unfortunately they gave him cow’s milk, which is a death sentence. The cow’s milk poisoned his system. When I got there, I could tell by just looking into his eyes that his eyes were already dead. He had already given up.”
Amid the tragedies, however, there are surprises. Some elephant babies do survive. And this is when elephant orphanages are needed.
Six young elephants currently live at the Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP) in Zambia, one of only two official orphanages in all of Africa.
The elephants range in age from four months to three years, and they roam their seven-acre homestead in a kind of affectionate, pachyderm gang.
At some point, each elephant had been traumatically separated from its biological family, so the youngsters have stitched together a new one. “These elephants stay together because they are now living as a family unit,” says Rachael Murton, the project manager of EOP.
“By nature elephants are herd animals. So, even though they were are all initially complete strangers, they’ve formed a surrogate herd, a surrogate family, and they’ve have all become very close to one another.”
Murton, a U.K. native, has been with the Elephant Orphanage Project since its inception in 2007. The nursery—officially called the Lilayi Elephant Nursery—is located just outside the capital city of Lusaka.
Inside the gates, the elephants are kept under the collective eye of a group of human “keepers,” who not only provide the toddlers security but also feed them bottled milk formula every two to three hours around the clock.
Zambezi—one of the orphan elephants at Elephant Orphanage Project in Zambia—playing with Rachael Murton, EOP’s project manager. CREDIT: Christina Russo
When an elephant arrives at the nursery, it is given a name, often based on the circumstances of its rescue. Musolole, for example, was a five-month old when poachers shot his mother in 2011.
Officers from the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA)—the wildlife resources arm of the Zambian government—heard the gunshot. They found the poachers as they were hacking the tusks out of the mother’s face, her calf standing nearby.
Gunfire was exchanged, and two ZAWA officers ultimately died; one of them was named Musolole.
“It was a traumatic case,” Murton says. “We didn’t understand the full story until we got there. We just had a phone call saying, ‘Look there’s a tiny elephant—you need to go to this location and pick it up.’ And when we got there, [the officers] were emotional because two of their colleagues were shot dead. But they also had managed to rescue this baby elephant.”
The officers asked Murton to name him Musolole. “There was so much pressure that this young elephant didn’t die on us,” Murton says. “Everyone was seeing him as a symbol of hope.” Today, Musolole is a sociable and healthy two-year old.
When EOP was launched, rescuers brought in two orphans a year. Now, Murton says, the organization receives six to seven calls annually. She attributes this swell to the surge in poaching, from which “Zambia is no exception.”
But she also thinks there is increasing awareness about EOP. First, the nursery gives free, daily talks about the project and the elephants. Also, EOP has a weekly presence on a rural community radio show.
Murton believes this show was instrumental in the rescue of the most recent elephant, a four-month old named Nkala. “The community, as soon as they found him, phoned ZAWA and said, ‘Send up the elephant orphanage, we’ve heard about them on the radio!’ And that was great, the fact that the community—rather than eating Nkala or leaving him [to die]—knew there was a place that he could go.”
Nkala has been at EOP for more than a month now. A tiny thing, he’s inquisitive and confident, but hasn’t fully integrated with the herd.
“He’s still going through a bit of a depression,” Murton says, stroking him. “He’s lost his family, and he’s not entirely bonded with these other elephants yet. He’s probably very sad. It can take a long time.”
Eventually, Musolole, Nkala, and the other orphans will be transferred to a “release” site in Kafue National Park.
“We chose Kafue as the release area because it has one of the most intact wild elephant populations in Zambia,” says Sport Beattie, CEO of Game Rangers International (GRI), the nonprofit parent organization of EOP. “We estimate about 5,000 elephant are roaming freely in the park.”
Like many parks in Africa, Kafue has had a tragic history of poaching, and when elephants were being slaughtered on a daily basis, the survivors hid in an area called the Ngoma Forest: “They would hide in there and then venture out to feed and drink water, then go back,” Beattie says. “The forest was their sanctuary. Although the park is much better protected now, they maintain that habit today.”
Beattie therefore built the orphan release site, called Camp Phoenix, on the edge of Ngoma, “so when the wild elephants and the orphans drink at nearby water, the interaction is maximized. That will hopefully encourage the orphans to remember that they are, in fact, elephants. As the whole idea of this project is to get them back into the wild, to join up with the wild herds, continue breeding, and repopulate again in Kafue.”
Kafue exudes a wildness that is hard to quantify, but sheer size is something to do with it. At more than 8,000 square miles, it’s about as big as Wales.
So while Murton focuses on rehabilitating the younger orphans at the nursery, Beattie has the daunting task of making the behemoth of a park secure for the older ones.
“Obviously a lot of time goes into rescuing orphan elephants, rehabilitating them, and getting them ready for the release phase back into the wild,” Beattie says. “So we need to make very sure that Kafue, and at very least the core release area, is safe from bush fires, from snares, and from poachers.”
Ranger Training and Support
In its additional capacity as an anti-poaching organization, GRI works closely with ZAWA and supports it in a multiplicity of ways.
“A lot of people focus on the wildlife, but we focus on the scouts,” says Beattie, who recognizes that the sophistication and robust nature of today’s poaching syndicates outstrips the wherewithal of wildlife officials.
So GRI supports and trains ZAWA men, providing rations, vehicles, uniforms, camps, technical advice, patrol analysis.
GRI aids in undercover work and investigation operations. “ZAWA is under resourced,” says Beattie, and can’t “secure the park in the way it should be secured. Which means there aren’t enough tourists. Which means there isn’t enough revenue. So organizations like ourselves need to come and play a supporting role.”
Recently, GRI set up what he believes is a very promising special operations unit, SAPU, comprised of two anti-poaching teams ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice to any of Kafue’s poaching hotspots.
According to Beattie, SAPU has recovered impressive quantities of ammunition, snares, automatic weaponry, raw ivory, and elephant bush meat, as well as prosecuted nearly 30 poachers, in just a few months.
GRI is also establishing a new radio network linking local safari lodges—a kind of 24-hour watch system that can communicate directly to ZAWA if any poaching incidents occur.
But Beattie, a Zimbabwean who trained in the British army and has conducted anti-poaching work in Cambodia, is a straight-shooting realist.
“We are teetering on a balance here. There are areas where there is poaching, and there are areas where it is under control.”
Will Released Orphans Live or Die?
In the 70s and 80s, Beattie says, poaching slashed Zambia’s elephant population by 80 percent. “We are nowhere close to what the poaching levels once were,” he says. “But if resources aren’t forthcoming, we will very quickly head back to those levels, without a doubt.”
That is the big, circular hitch: How can these orphan elephants, so painstakingly brought to physical and emotional health, be released into a wild that isn’t safe?
The question keeps Beattie up at night, and he knows he’s working against the clock. The “clock” being the eldest of the seven orphan elephants at Camp Phoenix, named Chodoba.
“Chodoba,” Beattie says, “was found by himself on death’s doorstep. He was very emaciated. The hyenas had pulled half his ears off. We all thought he was going to die.”
But now, years later, Chodoba is a healthy seven-year-old. He’s the first orphan in the project who shows signs of wanting to go back into the wild.
“We don’t force them to go back,” Beattie clarifies. “They go back when they’re ready. And like an elephant’s nature, which is to wander freely, they like to cover large distances in a day. So Chodoba is at that stage now. He doesn’t want to be confined. He spends his nights out. He still hovers around camp, but we aren’t sure how far he ventures away from it.”
Given his current patterns, Beattie figures Chodoba will be more or less self-released in three years.
Which is exactly when Beattie thinks—hopes—the Kafue release area will be secure.
“I think at our current level of funding—and I’m sorry to harp on it, but it all links to that—it will take us another three years.” He pauses. “If we lose an elephant orphan, I might as well pack my bags and go home, wherever that may be. So, it has to be secure by then. Somehow, by hook or by crook, we will make it safe.”