Elephant Orphanage Project - ZambiaOrphaned elephants need a new herd and a new home
It’s one of the questions I get asked the most: “What can I do to help elephants in Africa?” To answer it, I went to see for myself what is being done on the ground, at a nursery that takes in baby elephants who’ve been orphaned as a result of poaching.
Elephants are magical, wonderful creatures and we are drawn to them like no other savannah animals. Indeed, they are considered keystone species in the ecosystems in which they live – because by protecting elephants and their habitats, we can also protect the many other creatures who live alongside them.
But why do elephants even need our help? Let’s take a look at the facts:
The latest research and surveys show a shocking decline in the numbers of African elephants.
Within the last century, over 90% of African elephants in Africa have been lost – primarily due to poaching. The ivory from which the tusks of these grey giants are made is highly prized in Asia. Ivory carvings are considered status symbols, particularly in China. Ivory is shipped illegally from Africa across the Indian Ocean to the ports beyond. Extrapolations suggest poachers kill more 10,000 elephants every year. According to National Geographic, Chinese buyers will pay more than 10,000 US dollars for a pair of ivory chopsticks, while carved tusks can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. A lucrative business, this exploitation of elephants.
Quite apart from anything else, it’s a moral issue: if we lose the elephant, we lose a vital part of our common global soul. In fact, the same goes for any species we allow to disappear.
I’ve long wanted to do more to help elephants. In order to provide such help, however, it’s important to first understand how you can meaningfully contribute, to know where help is needed and what form that help takes.
A point to highlight: If you expect to visit an elephant nursery and be able to stroke, bottle-feed or otherwise engage with the little tykes, you’ll be in for a disappointment here. Contact with people is strictly controlled, being limited to just a few keepers who gain acceptance as family members. The nursery’s approach is very much about giving these youngsters the best possible chance of reintegrating into a wild herd, and not about fulfilling our dreams of stroking a baby elephant once in our lives and posting the resulting images on social media – for me, this approach is absolutely crucial and it underlines the seriousness of the project.
The elephant nursery in Lusaka, Zambia, was set up by Game Rangers International, an organisation that does much more than just nurse orphaned baby elephants, and is supported by IFAW via donations.
Here’s a short summary of what these international donations are used for:
Donations not only allow the organisation to look after the animals in their care, to feed them up and eventually return them to the wild, they also enable it to support and empower local people so that they benefit from the presence of elephants and learn to coexist with them in safety.
Donations thus go to support three different areas of work:
1. Habitat and ecosystem protection (via training and employment of rangers who help to protect the elephants and patrol the park boundaries)
2. Community outreach work (such as measures to aid the coexistence between people and animals, educational work with children and public information campaigns)
3. Wildlife rescue (the work of the nursery itself, i.e. rescuing and nursing orphaned baby elephants)
One initiative that is particularly deserving of support is the Little Ndaba group, which provides jobs for local women (mostly for the first time in their lives). Thanks to Little Ndaba, women living in immediate proximity to the animals learn to make soft toys that are then sold at the nursery.
The three stages of rehabilitation:
When GRI hears that an orphaned elephant has been found, they initiate a three-stage process:
Stage 1 – rescue:
As soon as the rangers receive an “orphan alert”, the requisite medicines and food for the orphaned elephant are prepared. Plans are then made for the animal’s rescue, capture and transportation. Sometimes a plane is required – depending on where the elephant was found. Orphaned calves are often very weak, undernourished and dehydrated and therefore need fast and effective human intervention.
Stage 2 – nursing:
On arrival at the nursery, the calves are initially very confused, missing the warmth and protection of their mother and of the herd. They are therefore covered in warm blankets and monitored by keepers 24 hours a day. Each orphan is given a milk formula that is specific to its age and size and adjusted over the course of its stay.
The keepers play a key role in the rehabilitation of the calves. They act as substitute mothers, accompanying them on daily bush rambles, providing a close bond and conveying a sense of security. In addition, they are responsible for giving milk three times a day. The calves quickly memorise these feeding times, and if a regular feed is delayed by even just five minutes, they can get quite agitated.
Stage 3 – return to the wild:
All calves at the GRI nursery are eventually returned to the wild, specifically to Zambia’s Kafue National Park. Initially, they are accompanied by their keepers, but their contact with humans is then gradually reduced until the animals can once again live entirely independently. It’s a strategy that works, as seen this year in particular, with one former orphan becoming pregnant by a wild bull for the first time – the ultimate sign of a successful rehabilitation!
Given the profusion of NGOs and animal welfare organisations today, it can be hard to find one you can trust. That’s why it was so important to me to check out the situation on the ground. The staff at GRI rely on the support of international charities such as IFAW and they assured me that their partnership with IFAW was honest and effective.
From my visit to the nursery, I also got the impression that they are taking the right approach, which for me primarily means an integrated one. GRI’s work is about much more than just helping orphaned animals – first and foremost, it’s about improving the coexistence between people and elephants on the frontline and ensuring Zambians feel pride and reverence towards these wonderful animals. After all, they are part of their national and cultural heritage.
Suggestions: If you’d like to get involved with helping elephants, here are a few ideas about what you could do.
1. You can support the GRI nursery by making a one-off or monthly donation to IFAW. My advice: instead of giving a large amount once, a more effective way to help is by donating a smaller amount regularly, e.g. every month. Regular donations help the organisation to plan for the longer term because then they know in advance roughly what funds are available to them. Obviously, one-off donations are fantastic, but they often come unannounced. Personally, I like stability, so I choose projects I want to support over the long term rather than making one-time donations in response to the latest hype or crisis. Also, donating via an international NGO such as IFAW is a sensible way for you to support such work as they have offices in your home country, meaning you can use proof of the donation to get tax relief.
2. You could volunteer at the nursery. There are three different ways to help on the ground: either as a social media expert, as a researcher or as a community outreach worker. Please bear in mind that there is a high cost involved in such volunteering. That’s because frontline staff have to invest significant resources in instruction, training and accommodation.
3. If you’re in Zambia, why not visit the nursery yourself? Safari Frank (www.safarifrank.de) can help you plan your trip.
The motto of the International Fund for Animal Welfare is “Animals and People – Thriving Together”. All of us on this planet face ever growing and ever more complex problems: illegal online wildlife trading is increasing, marine noise pollution is on the rise, and storms are becoming ever more severe. IFAW has been helping animals for fifty years, but continues to work to find new and better solutions for enhancing animal welfare. What I particularly like about IFAW is that they believe every animal counts. This is something that really strikes a chord with me: only when we humans start taking care of nature and wildlife again, even when it’s right on our doorstep (that means every sparrow, every oak, every river), will there be lasting improvement in our relationship with our planet.
In 2019, I became an ambassador for IFAW. I hope in future to visit lots of different IFAW projects in Africa and thereby can give you an insight into the organisation’s work. My reporting from these visits is unpaid; IFAW merely sometimes covers my travel and accommodation expenses.
-Gesa Neitzel, IFAW Ambassador
Visit Wonderful Wild to learn more about Gesa's conservation initiatives.