Early one morning in October, miners in southern Kenya arrived at open-faced ruby pits and began to have their tea when they heard muffled cries.
The men scurried trying to follow the sounds until they were standing over a pit looking at a frightened and traumatized baby elephant, no more than a few weeks old.
The mine is located near Tsavo National Park and herds often pass through the area at night.
Marks in the earth around the pit showed the herd had frantically tried to free the fallen calf.
Eventually, the leaders made the painful decision to abandon the calf for the herd’s safety.
Taking this discovery as a sign of good luck, the miners rescued the baby elephant which they named Zurura — Swahili for the “the wanderer.”
It was actually Zurura who was lucky.
His chances for survival are promising because he is now in the care of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Located just outside of Nairobi, it was established in 1977 in honour of naturalist and Tsavo Park warden David Leslie William Sheldrick, who passed away that year.
The trust nurses and raises baby elephants separated from their herds because poachers or other causes have killed their parents.
There is no other orphanage like this in Africa.
The trust also cares for young black rhino orphans, takes part in anti-poaching and de-snaring projects and now has a mobile veterinary unit that saves animals caught in traps and snares within Tsavo’s borders.
David’s widow, Dr. Daphne Sheldrick has been successfully running the orphanage since her husband’s passing.
Under her guidance, 75 elephants had successfully joined wild herds as of June 2006.
“Each and every one has taught us how amazing these animals are, possessing abilities that defy understanding,” said Dr. Sheldrick.
“Each one is unique with its own personality. They display envy, jealousy and throw tantrums. They can be happy or sad, volatile or placid.”
For one hour each day, the trust’s herd in training comes out for a public viewing, melting the hearts of all who come to see them. Cameras cannot snap fast enough.
Watching them play, it’s uncanny how much they resemble puppies. They wrestle, play with sticks, chase balls, and get into tugs of war with their trunks.
One popular toy is a large inner tube, which the elephants love to pounce on. Calves are sometimes drawn away from the group, absolutely fascinated by baboons that wander into the area.
While the public sees this playful side of the orphanage, what’s not seen is the Herculean effort that goes into rescuing and bringing these elephants back to health.
For example, it took Dr. Sheldrick 28 years of trial and error to develop a milk formula that matches mothers’ milk — essential for the survival of any newborn elephant.
The babies’ health must also be constantly monitored, as calves are surprisingly fragile and very susceptible to pneumonia.
They are often covered with blankets for warmth and sleep in straw-filled stables.
While the physical care is crucial, the emotional support is just as important.
In fact, a baby elephant’s emotional state is as fragile as its health.
Each calf is cared for by a team of dedicated handlers who instil a sense of family — creating a part human, part elephant herd.
“Just as human children need a family and the guidance and protection of adults, so too do elephants,” said Dr. Sheldrick. “They share with us a strong sense of family and death and they feel many of the same emotions. They grieve for lost loved ones. They even shed tears and suffer depression.”
Some orphans arrive at the nursery and appear to be in good health, but are terribly traumatized, having witnessed the slaughter of their parents.
They endure a lengthy grieving process that lasts months and are sometimes overwhelmed with grief.
So while 75 elephants have been saved, over 40 have not made it — some succumb to illness, while others simply lose the will to live, despite the orphanage’s round-the-clock care and attention.
Each loss pains Dr. Sheldrick, but she quickly noted, “There are others that need help. One must be strong enough and unselfish enough to think of them.”
Baby elephants remain at the orphanage for their two-year infant stage before being gradually introduced back into the wild.
Just when an elephant decides to join a wild herd, is up to him or her. Each orphan eventually decides when the company of elephants makes for more stimulating company than humans.
But once an elephant leaves the orphanage, the expression is true — an elephant never forgets.
Adults first raised in the orphanage often come back to visit their handlers. Some with newborns of their own return to show off their offspring. Others instinctually return if they have suffered an injury.
One female elephant, Eleanor, returned to visit the orphanage at age 42, and instantly rushed to see her handler. The handler had nursed her back to health when she was five.
Though 37 years had passed, Eleanor’s elation at seeing her handler was unmistakable.
In the hope that visitors will not forget about the nursery, the trust now offers a successful online fostering program through www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.
And international donors are certainly needed. Since September 2006, the trust took in four new calves, the oldest being just eight weeks.
For a minimum of US$50 a year donors can follow the life of their baby elephant via the internet.
They receive a fostering document, a profile of their elephant and a map of the area where they were first found.
Donors are also given links to a keeper’s diary with both written entries and images that follows the orphan’s progress.
And if a donor is able to travel to Kenya and visit the orphanage, appointments can be made to personally see sponsored calves for an experience the visitor will likely never forget.
Sean McNeely is a former Yukon News reporter who now lives and writes in Toronto.