The call of a bush baby fades as the first rays of morning light start to filter through the trees. Suni, her foot soaked and cleaned, is handed into the care of the day shift staff at the Elephant Nursery Facility at the Lilayi Game Reserve near Lusaka in Zambia. Attacked with an axe by the poachers that killed her mother, Suni’s wounds require intensive care. Her future is uncertain.
Working as a team of four, the keepers taking over from the night shift briefly exchange notes. With all things well, two of the keepers begin the morning walk, heading off into the bush followed by six orphaned elephants, trumpeting and jostling with life. Even Suni in her clunky boot designed to keep her leg straight, keeps up with her awkward gait.
The orphaned elephants will stay in the bush until noon, browsing for food, snoozing in the shade, doing elephant things. Back at camp, the two remaining keepers begin an intensive period of activity. Prepping milk for six baby elephants who demand regular feeds is a complicated business, no two has quite the same mixture and each will be fed eight times during the day. The stables are cleaned out.
A radio crackles and the location of the baby elephants is called in. The milk is packed into bags and the keepers begin their meandering walk out to the bush with the first feed of the day. After about twenty minutes the soporific hum of the bush is broken by the high pitched trumpeting of the little elephants who know that milk is on its way.
There is a mini stampede, some jostling for position and then silence as the milk is guzzled, rumbling sounds of elephant pleasure vibrating through the morning air.
Cheeky attempts by the faster-drinking older elephants to steal milk from the younger ones are dealt with quickly and disappointed they return to browsing. In the wild, elephants will eat over 100 different food types and there is plenty to choose from.
While the elephants continue to browse the two keepers return to camp and start the milk prep all over again ready for the midday feed.
There is a brief dilemma for the elephants as they return at noon. Which is more appealing—their milk or the muddy brown water hole in front of their stables? The milk wins, the wallow will come later.
For the keepers it’s a quick lunch and then health checks—weighing, measuring height and tusk length, recording the data, ensuring that the orphans are growing healthily. After that they return to the bush for the afternoon, more milk is carried out to them before returning to the boma for bedtime and a change of staff.
The night team stay above the stables on the observation deck, feeding the young orphans every three hours through the night as they snooze peacefully.
During a 24 hour period of care and support 96 litres of milk will be drunk, three bandages, 12 swabs, three litres of foot soak, three syringes, one metre of tape and 300 millimetres of iodine will have been used for Suni. Approximately six kilometres will have been walked by the elephants and their keepers.
Tomorrow, the same will be required again.
Providing and funding care for these orphans, and the older herd at the release site in Kafue National Park, is a constant challenge. It’s an expensive business picking up the pieces after the poachers have done their work, killed the mothers, fractured the herds, left the babies for dead.
Over the past three years, more than 60,000 elephants have been killed in Africa, far exceeding the number of elephants being born. Today, an African elephant is killed every 30 minutes for its ivory, leaving behind devastated herds and vulnerable baby orphans. Vital to the survival of their species these babies cannot be left to die.
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Editor: Travis May