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An Elephant Orphanage in Zambia Struggles Against the Odds

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.”

 

Rescuers insert a feeding tube into an orphan in Chad.  The young elephant - named Max -  eventually died.  CREDIT: WAR.
Rescuers insert a feeding tube into an orphan in Chad. The young elephant—named Max—eventually died. CREDIT: WAR.

 

Amid the tragedies, however, there are surprises. Some elephant babies do survive. And this is when elephant orphanages are needed.

Saving Orphans

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.

Orphans at the  EOP's Lilayi Elephant Nursery take a morning walk with their keeper. CREDIT: Christina Russo
Orphans at the Elephant Orphanage Project’s Lilayi Elephant Nursery take a morning walk with their keeper. CREDIT: Christina Russo

 

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
Zambezi—one of the orphan elephants at Elephant Orphanage Project in Zambia—playing with Rachael Murton, EOP’s project manager. CREDIT: Christina Russo

 

Ultimate Sacrifice

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.

 

Musolole (far left) and Nkala at the Elephant Orphanage Project.  CREDIT: Christina Russo
Musolole (left) and Nkala at the Elephant Orphanage Project. CREDIT: Christina Russo

 

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.”

 

PHOTO: 10EOPRusso. CAPTION: Rachael Murton strokes Nkala while he takes a morning nap. CREDIT: Christina Russo
Rachael Murton strokes Nkala while he takes a morning nap. CREDIT: Christina Russo

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.”

 

Wild Elephants in Kafue National Park. CREDIT: Christina Russo
Wild Elephants in Kafue National Park. CREDIT: Christina Russo

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.”

 

Sport Beattie, the CEO of Game Rangers International (GRI). Beattie lives and works at Kafue National Park in Zambia, where the "release" site for the older orphans is located. CREDIT: GRI
Sport Beattie, the CEO of Game Rangers International (GRI). Beattie lives and works at Kafue National Park in Zambia, where the “release” site for the older orphans is located. CREDIT: GRI

 

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.”

 

Chodoba. CREDIT: GRI
Chodoba. CREDIT: GRI

 

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.”

Comments

  1. Nicole
    Ohio USA
    March 17, 7:09 pm

    If only there was some other economy that could be created so that this was work was less lucrative for poachers than some other alternative. It is truly heartbreaking to hear about this.

  2. Terri
    Colorado
    February 12, 12:18 am

    I came upon this sight by searching “volunteer elephant orphanage”. I had remembered reading or hearing something about it. As I begin to contemplate retirement I begin to think of the things I am passionate about. Well, it’s always been elephants. Unfortunately for me, after reading through their story, I feel the best thing I could do is send money; not go to work helping them care for the elephants. Darn!

  3. Mags
    Lusaka, Zambia
    December 13, 2013, 2:52 am

    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece Christina, I’m pleased that you had the privilege of visiting Lilayi and seeing the amazing work that this team is doing to look after the orphaned elephants. Paul, I totally agree with you, we (Zambians) really need to get involved and take the lead roles in these conservation projects especially in educating our fellow Zambians that might not understand the importance of wildlife.

    I can tell you that several Operators/NGO’s etc have been doing amazing work by informing and educating the locals and everyone’s message has been clear, “stop poaching and conserve wildlife”.

    Personally I think the biggest problem is the luck of jobs especially for the young Zambians and unfortunately this is more for the government as they need to create more jobs. The Minister of Tourism put a ban on hunting safaris which is obviously a great move and several stakeholders have applauded the government for this move, however this hasn’t solved the problem of luck of employment and for people in the rural areas (close to the national parks)have resorted to poaching for survival or cutting of trees for Charcoal in order to sell and make some money to send their children, brother or sisters to school.

    I think the Zambian government needs to come in and find a solution and put an end to this, we have been reading about the Rhinos in South Africa and its heartbreaking for people that have worked tirelessly to conserve the wildlife.

  4. Peter B
    United Kingdom
    October 30, 2013, 7:33 am

    We really need to get the Zambians involved and taking the lead on these conservation projects. All to often its left to the NGO’s who when they pull out the locals just sit back and it all falls apart despite best efforts to educate

  5. Heidi Halverson
    Missoula, Montana USA
    September 22, 2013, 8:27 pm

    I thought the slaughter of elephants was over! Thank you Ms. Russo for the shocking and informative article of this sad situation. You did a great job of writing and your pictures really help explain the tragedy and the care that the elephants receive. Thank you to National Geographic for publishing this story!

  6. Carmen Wilmer
    Stokesdale, N.C
    September 21, 2013, 1:18 am

    Informative, yet emotionally gripping, this article strikes a balance between horror and hope for the survival of the orphaned elephants in Zambia. They are too majestic to be wiped off the face of the Earth for personal gain, and Ms. Russo, points to a ray of hope, in the Kafue Orphanage.

  7. Carmen Wilmer
    Stokesdale, N.C.27357
    September 20, 2013, 11:37 pm

    A kinship with this humble beautiful beast was forged 27 years ago at the Syracuse Zoo, and this article has reawakened a desire to see this project succeed from more than a purely educational vantage point. Looking forward to seeing more of Ms. Russo’s in-depth coverage of world-wide animal survival issues. A beacon in a world oft in darkness.

  8. Bettie Cartwright
    Annisquam
    September 20, 2013, 10:06 am

    Great piece of work from Christina Russo. So glad to learn about this fascinating place working hard to save our world.

  9. Marjorie Nicholson
    Marshfield, MA
    September 19, 2013, 8:53 pm

    This is a very inspiring story.

  10. Ryan Dix
    Canada
    September 19, 2013, 3:21 pm

    Leslie they do have a program that helps with educating the local populations. And Sharon, if you volunteer, which you can, you would help with the education aspect. All the people that work with the organization are great and definitely need support from the outside.

  11. Kevin
    U.S.
    September 18, 2013, 11:01 am

    I’ve had a chance to meet Rachael (Murton) from the Elephant Orphanage Project just outside of Lusaka in Zambia. While I haven’t had a chance to visit, what she and her dedicated, passionate team are doing is nothing short of remarkable. However their program needs support to keep providing food, medicine, etc. For more information on how to help, go to http://www.gamerangersinternational.org/eop/sitepages/home.aspx.

  12. Leslie Jones
    USA
    September 17, 2013, 10:05 pm

    With regard to the much needed funds. Why not tap into a crowdfunding type program?

    Start by preparing a business plan that would reflect partnership with, and education of, the local populations via jobs: either protecting the animals, creating a viable and sustainable tourism industry and any other related means that will generate viable revenue streams, e.g., by building roads, and related infrastructure. Partner with a well-known and reputable organization (instant name recognition = trust). Consider adding a program to approach governments of countries with an ivory obsession to help dissuade from these superstitions, e.g., by filming programs about the animals, underlying the cruelty of poaching; or creating a news item that periodically informs/updates about the animals, creating a bond between the animals in Africa and the viewers in China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and elsewhere.
    Partner with corporations, e.g., airline(s) who may agree to offer free tickets to donors at some level, etc.

    If anyone has any ideas how to expand on such a business plan, go to it! The more effective and comprehensive the plan, the more effective and long lasting the success. Ultimate benefit: future generations will be able to learn about and love live animals, not the archeological remains.

    What do you think?

  13. elaine russo
    southborough,ma
    September 17, 2013, 9:32 pm

    Dear Christina-I am so proud of you for putting this story out into the world-you have been trying to save the elephants for so long and now you will be heard-

  14. Jenni
    September 17, 2013, 8:17 pm

    The poachers should be shot.

  15. Eric Paul
    September 17, 2013, 6:35 pm

    “Please stop slaughtering these beautiful animals” I seriously doubt the poachers read NatGeo online Doriana.

    Unfortunately the poachers’ game is to allow these volunteers, non-profits, and gov. run agencies to spend all the time and money rearing these orphans so they may become their next victims as adults. We talk about intervening militarily in Syria – I say we start intervening militarily in Africa with all the illegal poaching!

  16. DONNA WARNER
    United States
    September 17, 2013, 3:21 pm

    I think the poacher shot be shot send a strong message what will happen if they are caught poaching. Because if they are release the way it is now they will be poaching again!

  17. Manjusha
    India
    September 17, 2013, 1:17 pm

    You guys are angels on earth taking care of these beautiful beings affected by such trauma. Hoping that you are able to raise enough funds to continue your work and make the place secure for the elephants.

  18. Doriana Lehmann
    United Kingdom
    September 17, 2013, 12:14 pm

    lease stop slaughtering these beautiful animals

  19. Doriana Lehmann
    United Kingdom
    September 17, 2013, 12:12 pm

    Elephants are gentle giants, smart,sensitive,beautiful,helpful,compassionate,strong,heartwarming and probably the most gorgeous animals on planet earth.

  20. LAURA
    MEXICO
    September 17, 2013, 9:58 am

    Work Much excites me the orphanage, I ask if there any mechanism to YOU and help Arriving for a month at Least. Without Make it expensive for Volunteers? o That YOU Say we are your conditions. We are teachers in arts, not tourists, and we have no more That our salary and MUCH LOVE FOR ELEPHANTS. thank you, a big hug

  21. LAURA
    México
    September 17, 2013, 9:35 am

    me emociona mucho el trabajo del orfanato, pregunto si hay algun mecanismo que permita llegar con ustedes y ayudar un mes por lo menos. Sin que sea costoso para los voluntarios ?? o que ustedes nos digan cuales son sus condiciones. Nosotros somos docentes en artes , no turistas ,y no poseemos mas que nuestro salario y MUCHO AMOR POR LOS ELEFANTES . gracias , un gran abrazo

  22. António Henrique Alves Monteiro
    Portugal - Benedita
    September 17, 2013, 8:53 am

    You people fight back to keep all this animals in strong form, but there is behind all this the chinese awaintig for th ivory. I fill very sick against this bastards

  23. Nyambe Nyambe
    Lusaka, Zambia
    September 17, 2013, 3:36 am

    Nice work at Lilayi. I am especially happy to read about Musolole because I personally saw Musolole (baby elephant) at the wildlife office in Sioma… A day after the fatal shooting. Having known the two officers killed by poachers, and having facilitated their burials, I am greatly happy humbled.

  24. Twinkle
    India
    September 17, 2013, 3:30 am

    Great work by the organisation to take care of these beautiful little calves. Really heart touching.

  25. Pam Truscott
    Redding, Ca.
    September 16, 2013, 8:05 pm

    This is such a wonderful group that is doing so much to save the elephants…they are so heroic!!!! This needs to be in the news and not all the propaganda…

  26. Sharon Niel
    California, USA
    September 16, 2013, 2:27 pm

    What a wonderful efforts at this orphanage to save these babies! I would like to donate and also wonder if it is possible to go to Zambia and help (volunteer) care for the orphans.

  27. Jean
    South Africa
    September 16, 2013, 12:32 pm

    I had the privilege of visiting the Kafue Orphanage and the Lilayi Nursery it is one of the most amazing things I done in my life. Rachel, Sport and their dedicated team work wonders with these babies and give hope not only to the elephant herds but to the rest of us who love the bush and want a legacy for our children.