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The Toronto Star

Saving Kenya's Orphan Elephants

A spike in the price of ivory and tough economic times are luring poachers back to illegal hunting

Michelle Shephard

Just six months old, Suguta looks for affection from her handler, Benson Wambwa, after her mother was killed near Maralal in northern Kenya. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star)

NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK, KENYA-Suguta doesn't like to stray too far from her keeper. She nuzzles Benson Wambwa, pushing her trunk under his arm, rubbing her leathery, muddy side along his green smock. If another elephant tries to get attention, Suguta's clearly not pleased.

It has taken a stressful couple of months to get Suguta to where she is now. The elephant calf was just three months old in August when she was discovered, emaciated, dehydrated and with her skin hanging from her face.

Her rescuers figured she had been without milk for at least five days - another orphan for the sake of her mother's ivory tusks. In the last few months, the price of ivory in Kenya has reportedly spiked from 300 shillings a kilogram, to 5,000 (from about $5 to $78), making poaching attractive in tough economic times. The tusks of a fully matured elephant can weigh up to 90 kilograms, and with China's insatiable appetite for ivory, finding a buyer is not difficult.

The ban on the ivory trade was temporarily lifted this year in four African countries - South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia - after heated debate within the international body that first outlawed the practice, in 1989.

The reprieve by the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species allowed China and Japan last month to buy more than 100 tons of tusks stockpiled by the four African nations from elephants who died of natural causes, or who were killed as part of an official cull to control their population.

But some fear that the legal auction of ivory has increased demand and encouraged more poaching.

Kenyan officials are bracing for what could be a mass slaughter similar to that experienced in the 1980s, when the country's poachers reduced the elephant population from 130,000 to only 16,000.

Nowhere are the effects of poaching more pronounced than at Suguta's home here, within Nairobi's national park. Suguta is one of 13 baby elephants being raised by Dame Daphne Sheldrick and a stable of keepers who live and sleep with the orphans.

Sheldrick gets visibly angry as she talks about the poaching and says, with political strife in Kenya and neighbouring Somalia, plus the legal ivory sales and worldwide economic downturn, she has already seen an influx of abandoned babies as their mothers are killed.

"Everything," she says, "is working against the elephants now."

She fears her orphanage, with the high cost of having a one-to-one ratio of keeper and elephant, and the high duty price to import donated milk, may not be able to handle a greater influx of babies.

Two decades ago, the rescue of orphaned infant elephants was impossible, because the fragile babies cannot easily be fed and are prone to pneumonia and other ailments. With their humanlike traits, orphans can also suffer from severe depression with the loss of a parent and must be nursed back to health, both physically and emotionally.

In 1986, Kenyan-born Sheldrick helped discover a formula the infants could tolerate and was given permission by the government to create an orphanage. Ninety elephants have been raised here until they are old enough to be reintroduced to the wild.

"After having been with these elephants for some time, we really love them, we get used to them, so we miss them when they go," says Edwin Lusichi, the orphanage's 32-year-old head keeper.

Lusichi was born and raised in Western Kenya but had never seen an elephant until he came to study computers at a Nairobi college. Someone told him about the orphanage so he decided to visit - and fell in love.

"In a week, I used to come three days, because I used to do my studies in the evenings," Lusichi says as Suguta walks over and begins to suck on his fingers. "One day I was around and they were short of staff. They had just received a call for the rescue of an elephant ... They were looking for guys who could stay in the nursery while the other guys could fly for the rescue."

Lusichi filled in, then stayed for a few more days and finally got hired, eventually becoming the head keeper after he realized this is where he wanted to be.

The keepers are with the elephants 24 hours a day - playing with them, sleeping in their stalls at night to bottle feed them every three hours. Sometimes the keepers just spend hours lounging on the ground nearby so the elephants know they're there if needed.

"You have to try and replace what the elephant would have had in the wild with its natural family," Sheldrick explains from the veranda of her home inside the orphanage.

The keepers rotate care so one elephant won't get too attached, then feel abandoned again when the keeper takes a day off.

After a few years, the elephants are moved from the orphanage to Tsavo National Park, the world's second-largest national park, about 400 kilometres outside Nairobi. Here, the elephants are slowly integrated, until eventually they find a herd and live in the wild.

"Eventually by age 10 or so they're normal elephants again and by this time they're finding humans rather dull," says Sheldrick. "Can't communicate with them, can't walk 100 miles a day, can't do all sorts of things. They're finding elephants a lot more interesting."

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