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Spent her life raising orphaned elephants. When she comes, the elephants gather around her for a hug

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Daphne Sheldrick has dedicated her life to raising orphaned elephants. Once they are old enough, they are taken to protected areas and integrated with other orphan groups. When Daphne visits, the elephants gather around her for a hug.

Daphne Sheldrick has fostered over 250 elephant babies, first in partnership with her husband, David Sheldrick, founding warden of Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park and a legendary naturalist, and later (following his death in 1977) as part of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), which she founded in his memory.

Many are victims of poaching, like one-year-old Lima Lima, who was found weak and dehydrated. Lima Lima took milk from a hand-held bottle and was warmly greeted by the other elephants at the nursery, but she mourned for her lost family and often secluded herself, which is natural behavior for an older orphan who has gone through such trauma.

Then there’s Quanza, the two-year-old found by the side of her murdered mother and two sisters — both shot by poachers. She was so fearful of humans that it took her four months to interact with her “human family” at her new home.

The ivory poaching trade has left many baby elephants orphaned. Many are severely traumatized by what happened to their elephant family and “just want to die,” Daphne says.

In 1989, a worldwide ban on ivory trade was approved by CITES. Levels of poaching fell dramatically, and black market prices of ivory slumped. However, since 1997, there have been sustained attempts by certain countries to weaken the ban. In 1999, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed an ‘experimental one-off sale’ of over 49,000kg of ivory to Japan. Then in 2002, a further one off-sale was approved, which finally took place in 2008 – and resulted in 105,000kg of ivory being shipped to China and Japan.

Today, levels of poaching and illegal trade have spiralled out of control once again. In many areas, rates of poaching are now the worst they have been since 1989.

To date, poaching and trafficking in ivory is at the highest level in 25 years. Between 2009 and June 2014, criminal networks trafficked as much as 170 tons of ivory. The price of ivory has skyrocketed from USD /kg in 1989 to a wholesale price of USD ,100/kg in China in 2014, with retail prices much higher.

Raising rescued elephant calves is challenging, and mortality rates are high. Part of the difficulty is that infants are fully dependent on their mother’s milk until they’re two years old and are not fully weaned until around four or five.

Baby elephants can’t tolerate the fat in cow’s milk. Finding a suitable substitute for elephant milk took Daphne 28 years of trial and error before she hit on a formula that contained coconut oil—likely the nearest replacement for the fat in elephant milk.

But as Daphne has seen time after time, raising an orphaned elephant requires not only meeting its physical needs but also its social and emotional ones.

Keepers tend to the orphan elephants 24 hours a day and the baby elephants are extraordinarily well cared for. The elephants are bottle-fed every three hours. The keepers rotate, so the orphans do not get too attached. They watch the babies at all times, protecting them with blankets when they get cold, rainwear when wet and even sunscreen during the first two months of life. The elephants feel an amazing connection to those who care for them at the orphanage. Daphne explained, “During my long association with the orphaned elephants, many have chosen to remain in touch with the human family that replaced their lost elephant family and whom they love as deeply as their elephant peers. Many have brought their wild-born babies to share them and their joy with their human family, and many have returned to seek the help of their human family when wounded or sick.”

When asked how she handles loving and caring for a baby elephant and watching it fade, she replied, “We draw our emotional stamina from the elephants themselves, who suffer tragedy and heartbreak on an almost daily basis, but who find the courage to turn the page, and focus on the living after grieving just as acutely as us humans, and perhaps even more so. Whenever we are faced with tragedy and death, after copious tears, one simply has to take one’s cue from the elephants, and we do. There will be others that need your help. It would be very selfish to simply turn them away because one finds it too painful to try to help them. So one has to simply focus on the living, rather than the dead, knowing that the dead are beyond any more suffering and pain, and that one has, at least, afforded them a comfortable end surrounded by compassion and love.

Daphne once said, elephants “are just like us but better than us.”

When asked what elephants can teach us she replied, “Elephants are much more caring than us humans, even in infancy. All comfort and care for those younger. They have better powers of forgiveness than us humans, despite “never forgetting,” which in elephants happens to be true. They are much more welcoming of strangers. All the orphans instantly embrace and love any newcomer, showing caring and compassion by gently touching them with their trunks, etc.

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“Spent her life raising orphaned elephants. When she comes, the elephants gather around her for a hug”