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Re-wilding Orphaned Elephants in Zambia: The Elephant Orphanage Project

Re-wilding Orphaned Elephants in Zambia
The Elephant Orphanage Project

Human wildlife conflict and poaching, not just in Zambia but in the surrounding nations has devastated Africa’s elephant population in the last decades. The Elephant Orphanage Project was developed in 2008 by Game Rangers International, a Zambian NGO, in conjunction with Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) to stem the downward spiral of the elephant population. Their aim is to rescue, rehabilitate and release orphaned elephants into the wild. The rehabilitation of these orphans is a lesson for the future and is also a platform for educating people and communities about the real threat of extinction and how they can stop it.

The Lilayi Elephant Nursery, located just 35 minutes outside Lusaka in Zambia, is part of a two stage operation run by Game Rangers International who work closely with the Department of National Parks & Wildlife (DNPW) which is a department under the Ministry of Tourism and Arts in Zambia. The nursery has been set up to take in the youngest members of orphaned elephant calves rescued in Zambia. At the time of our visit, we found 6 elephant calves at the Lilayi Elephant Nursery. It is here that the elephant calves get round the clock care from dedicated keepers, who help them regain condition, recover from their trauma and begin the process of rehabilitation back into the wild.

Mud wallowing in the Lilayi stockades

In many cases, the calves have lost their mothers and had to be rescued as a result of poaching or human wildlife conflict incidents. To name just a few, there is Kasewe, Kakaro, Mkaliva and Matizye. Kasewe is just over 2 years old and was found in a community in the Lower Zambezi. It was suspected that her mother was shot for crop raiding. There is young Kakaro who also just over 2 years old. He was found on a small island in the Luangwa River. It is thought that poachers killed his mother and he got lost when the herd fled. His tail had been bitten off, most likely by a crocodile during his swim to the island. Mkaliva was rescued in August 2017 in a community near the Lower Zambezi National Park. It is thought that her mother was also killed by poachers. The most recent arrival at Lilayi is tiny Matizye, not just the newest but the youngest calf at the sanctuary. At 3 months old, she was rescued from the South Luangwa National Park, discovered in a muddy puddle behind a school. Older Kasewe has seemingly taken on a ‘mother’ role to Matizye, often staying by Matizye’s side and touching her affectionately with her trunk. The keepers say this relationship has helped the recovery of both calves.

Kakaro - with no tail

Day in the life of a Lilayi elephant calf

The calves wake up in their boma stall in the morning and have a bottle of milk before heading out to the bush with their keepers. Spending time in the bush is vital for them to become accustomed to not just the other animals around them, but the food available to them in the wild and how to acquire it. It is all a learning curve for the youngsters and just like any young or inexperienced creature, sometimes they get scared. As was the case when we were there; the elephants saw some zebras in the bush and they got such a fright, they ran all the way home! The poor keepers had to run after them and entice them back out again. At 9am, bottles get brought out to calves and keepers wherever they are in the bush to supplement the vegetation they eat, as would be the case in the wild, where between the ages of 1-3 years, they would feed both on vegetation and nurse from their mothers.

At 11.30am, the calves get walked back toward the boma where they get bottle number 3 for the day and have the chance to have a mud bath and play. This is where visitors to the centre get the opportunity to see the elephants from a viewing platform, which has strict rules on noise so as not to affect the eles playing below. Such a viewing opportunity is so important for visiting guests and school children alike, where they can learn about the elephants, why it is important to conserve them and how everyone can work together to reduce some of the threats the elephants face. It was very encouraging to see that there is no physical interaction allowed between guests and the elephants at Lilayi. They strongly believe that minimal human contact in vital in order to successfully reintroduce the elephants back into the wild and do everything they can to minimise stress on the orphans.

After another bottle feed in the boma it is back out to the bush for a bit more exploring. The keepers stay near, watching over the calves and making sure they are safe. Although the keepers are rotated to ensure that none of the calves bond with an individual person, the keepers are all viewed by the calves as the matriarchs of the herd. When the keepers move, the calves follow, as they would in a natural environment. It was incredible to see how all of the calves demonstrated so many “wild” elephant habits; in how they knew to dig for food with their feet, push over small trees for their roots and use the delicate fingers of their trunk to pluck the finest blades of grass.

By nightfall, the calves get lead back to the boma to sleep, more for their safety, but also so that the keepers can continue their three-hourly feed during the night. The keepers sleep on a platform above the elephants so that if any of them cry out in the night, they are on hand to comfort them, just as their mothers would.

Spending time in the bush is an important part of rehabilitating the orphans

What kind of milk do elephant calves drink?

Elephant calves require a special milk formula that they need every three hours. They are intolerant to lactose/ cow’s milk, so their bottles require a mixture of the following;

  • Milk powder (same as for human babies) – vitamins, minerals, protein, energy
  • Oats – slow release carbohydrates Futurelife – protein
  • Whey protein – protein
  • Desiccated Coconut – fats, to help them put on weight

With other supplements including;

  • Calcium & magnesium – bone & tusk growth
  • Vitamin C – repair of damaged tissues
  • Moringa (a local Zambian tree, high in amino acids and nutrients)
  • Rice Water – if the calves have diarrhoea
  • Sweet Potato – potassium
  • Protexin – probiotic
  • Green Clay – good for improving consistency of dung
Three-hourly feeds bought out into the bush

What happens to the orphans when they are ready to be weaned off milk?

At around 3 years old, once the calves are back to health and normal weight and are ready to be weaned off milk, it is time for their next phase of their rehabilitation back to the wild. At this stage, they get transferred to the Kafue National Park Release Facility where they can enjoy greater exposure to the bush, other elephants and wild animals and also where they become even more separated from humans. Read our follow on blog to learn more about this process and what happens next in the life of an orphan elephant.

How can I help the orphan elephants?

There are a number of ways you can support the orphans;

Volunteering at the Lilayi Nursery

Check out the video from our visit: Saving Zambia's Orphan Elephants

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