Founded in 1969, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) saves individual animals, animal populations and habitats all over the world. Recently they arranged for Iain Webb and his partner to visit the Lilayi elephant nursery near Lusaka, Zambia, because of their strong interest in elephant conservation.
When Michael and I arrived at the orphanage, we put on the green coats that the caretakers all wear when they interact with the elephants, and headed to where they all sleep at night.
We found the staff focusing on the care of an infant elephant that had been flown in about two weeks earlier. This baby was approximately one-year-old, and had been on her own after her mother was killed by poachers about a month before she was found in a local village. She was very malnourished, with soft tissue swelling (edema) related to her severe malnutrition.
Unfortunately, on the day we arrived, she was not doing well. She previously had had a good appetite, but that morning had stopped eating and was showing signs of distress. Her belly had swollen up, and it was unclear whether this was related to severe constipation or whether she had an advanced hernia blocking her intestines.
The vet was going to examine her the next morning. We later learned that despite the team’s best efforts, this young one passed. Given how sick she had become, this was not a surprise. But it was still very sad, and reminded us how difficult the work of this orphanage can be.
The facilities of the orphanage include several acres of open land, where the elephants roam during the day with their primary caregivers, with whom they form strong bonds very quickly when they arrive. A sleeping area has been created with assigned spots for the animals and the caregivers. There is also a small fenced in area with a water hole as well as a viewing platform.
The platform allows local families and school children to visit and watch the elephants when they are in the main area of the orphanage in the middle of the day, usually playing in the water. The goal is to increase animal welfare education opportunities for the students as well as strengthen bonds with the local community.
Community support is critical if elephant conservation efforts are to be successful.
After the tour, we headed out to the open area, to meet the other elephants and observe their afternoon feeding. The younger elephants receive formula every two hours, while the older ones are fed every three hours.
Given the time necessary to take care of the severely ill calf, the feeding was delayed. Based on this, we expected to meet some grumpy elephants impatiently waiting to be fed.
As we approached the elephants were running towards us, anxious for their meal.
One of the elephants grabbed a bottle, skillfully gripping it with her trunk, and headed off to drink. She finished the formula quickly, but then refused to give the bottle back, making her keeper chase her. We could imagine this game recurring many times a day.
Several of the elephants, naturally curious, then wanted to investigate the newcomers. Although in theory this might have been fun, it would have been dangerous given our unfamiliarity interacting closely with elephant calves, who can weigh several hundred pounds.
We still ended up as close as 10 feet from these fascinating animals, able to observe their behavior and photograph them.
The Zambia Elephant Orphanage Project of Game Rangers International, was established by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, in close collaboration with the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) and IFAW.
Game Rangers International is an organisation of British origins that, in addition to running the orphanage, is dedicated to supporting the future of the African elephant, primarily through anti-poaching training and support in the National Parks, especially Kafue.