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ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS, How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species
By Laurel A. Neme, PhD

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National Geographic: Good News for Animals in Nepal: A Full Year Without Poaching PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Wednesday, 12 March 2014 00:00
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Thrilled my NatGeo article on Nepal's year with no poaching has over 65,000 Facebook likes and has sparked many comments. Nice to see that reaction. :-)

 

 

 

 

 

A photo of an Indian Rhinoceros in Nepal.

A greater one-horned rhino drinks from a river bordering Chitwan National Park, about 44 miles (70 kilometers) southwest of Kathmandu, Nepal.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GEMUNU AMARASINGHE, AP

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published March 12, 2014

On World Wildlife Day, March 3, Nepal celebrated 365 days with zero poaching. No rhinos, tigers, or elephants were killed.

It's the second year of such success in Nepal. In 2011 the country also had none, and in 2012 it lost just one rhino to poaching.

This achievement is particularly notable in the face of increased poaching elsewhere. Since February 28, according to press reports, Kenya lost three rhinos to poachers in the span of one week in heavily guarded Lake Nakuru National Park, and one more in Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

On February 28 in South Africa, the epicenter of the rhino poaching crisis, tourists in Kruger National Park found a blinded and mutilated rhino wandering alive. That horror prompted a social media storm and generated intense interest from the Belgian ambassador to South Africa and senior members of the European Parliament. (The personal secretary and aide to Belgium's deputy prime minister was one of the tourists.) In South Africa last year, 1004 rhinos were poached; so far this year, 146 have been poached.

Against this backdrop, Nepal's record stands out.

According to John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Nepal's success is the result of "strong and committed leadership, excellent national collaboration among enforcement entities and with parks agencies, very effective engagement with local communities, and targeted intelligence-led enforcement actions leading to arrests of key players at the top of the criminal chain."

More than 700 criminals were arrested for wildlife-related crimes this past year, including many "kingpins."

"Efforts on the ground have been intensified, with rangers and the Nepal[ese] army patrolling protected areas with support from community-based antipoaching units outside the parks," notes Shubash Lohani, deputy director of the Eastern Himalaya Ecoregion Program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

"In addition, active enforcement by the crime investigation bureau of Nepal's police has been crucial to breaking down the presence of illegal wildlife trafficking networks."

A joint operation in October 2013 by the Nepalese army and the special police led to the dismantling of a rhino poaching network and the arrest of Kathmandu-based kingpin Buddhi Bahadur Praja. Praja allegedly ran a cross-border smuggling enterprise from Nepal to Tibet and killed 12 rhinos over six years.

Also in December 2013, at Nepal's request INTERPOL issued a Red Notice for another notorious rhino poacher, Rajkumar Praja, a 30-year-old Nepali wanted for killing 15 rhinos in Chitwan National Park. Praja was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison.

A photo of game rangers carrying a confiscated tiger skin drying on a rack.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MAGGIE STEBER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Game rangers carry a confiscated tiger skin drying on a rack in Royal Bardia National Park in Nepal.

Zero Tolerance for Wildlife Crime

"There is very much a zero-tolerance attitude to wildlife crime, whereby justice is often swift and harsh," notes John Sellar, an antismuggling, fraud, and organized crime consultant and former CITES enforcement chief.

"Nepal's forest law empowers district forest officers and chief wildlife wardens to deal with offenders and impose prison sentences of up to 14 or 15 years," according to Sellar.

"Whilst this scenario might seem at odds with other judicial systems," Sellar says, "probably its greatest advantage is that it means that any poacher who is caught can expect to be dealt with much quicker than in other countries suffering high levels of poaching, where court systems regularly have lengthy backlogs and where, currently, insufficient deterrence is present."

Thanks to Nepal's efforts, its current estimated population of tigers in national parks increased from 121 in 2009 to 198 in 2013, a promising uptick for a species that's in desperate trouble globally.

A 2011 census of Nepal's greater one-horned rhinos showed an estimated population of 534, up 20 percent from 425 in 2008, with more than 500 of them in Chitwan National Park.

The Nepalese army patrols the national parks to ensure their protection. But poaching increased during the Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006, when soldiers were redeployed and the number of army monitoring posts in and around the park fell from 30 to 7.

As a result, Chitwan's rhino population reportedly fell from 612 rhinos in 2000 to some 380 in 2006, when a peace accord was signed.

Today, according to BBC reports, at least a thousand Nepalese soldiers patrol Chitwan from more than 40 posts.

A photo of Nepalese rangers tracking a rhino.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEMUNU AMARASINGHE, AP
A Nepalese wildlife ranger riding an elephant holds an antenna as he tries to trace a rhino with a radio collar in Chitwan National Park.

Cooperative Approach

At the national level, Nepal's Department of Forests, the country's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) antipoaching staff, and the Nepalese army all share information and work together to fight wildlife poaching and trafficking. At the local level, communities provide the DNPWC with information, which allows officials to target poachers and dealers.

"There has been collaboration across the board in Nepal to stop poaching by putting more rangers on the ground in a cohesive, sophisticated way, actively enforcing anti-trafficking laws to break down illegal wildlife trade networks, educating local communities, and building a shared ethic of conservation across Nepali society," says WWF's Lohani.

For years Nepal has ensured local communities benefit financially from the parks and ecotourism. Those benefits come not only from employment, but also from sharing revenue, such as entrance fees and license fees for tour and lodge companies, with local people.

"The government actually gives 50 cents of every tourist dollar to local communities, which makes them hold more value for rhinos alive than dead," Lohani notes.

Further, Nepalese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the National Trust for Nature Conservation, and international NGOs, such as WWF, have a long history of fruitful interaction with local communities. The result is citizens with a strong sense of ownership and commitment to wildlife protection.

Dedicated leadership at high levels has also been important. Nepal's prime minister chairs the national wildlife crime control bureau. The country hosts the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) secretariat, and the director-general of DNPWC serves as SAWEN's chief enforcement coordinator.

In addition, Nepal was a major force in the early days of the Global Tiger Initiative, which assists the 13 tiger range states in carrying out their conservation strategies through planning, coordination, and communication.

A photo of tourists getting on an elephant in Nepal.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEMUNU AMARASINGHE, AP
Tourists prepare to ride an elephant during a wildlife safari in Chitwan National Park.

Danger Lurks

Nepal's location—between China to its north and India to its south, east, and west—places it at great risk for trafficking. The country's rough terrain makes border control difficult, and Kathmandu Valley is believed to be a major transit point for the illicit wildlife trade.

"Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that Nepal's growing tiger and rhino populations will inevitably continue to be targets," Sellar warns. "Personally, my concern would be that we see the South Africa scenario replicated—i.e., heavily armed and determined foreign gangs entering Nepal's national parks in search of horns, skins, and ivory."

But Nepal is aware of the dangers. Already, it has sought to employ the Wildlife and Forest Crime Analytic Toolkit and collaborate with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) to strengthen its approach to wildlife crime.

As Klairoong Poonpon, former chair of INTERPOL's Wildlife Crime Working Group and senior technical officer of Thailand's Department of National Parks, summarizes, "Nepal's remarkable achievement at zero poaching for a second year gives lessons for other countries and hope for the future of our wildlife."

 
Raz the Raven Vocalizing at Outreach for Earth Stewardship (OFES) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Friday, 07 March 2014 11:14
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My favorite sounds at Outreach for Earth Stewardship, where I volunteer, come from Raz the Raven. The variety of his vocalizations is amazing. You can hear for yourself in this recent video:

 

 
My NatGeo article on London Summit as turning point PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Friday, 14 February 2014 00:00
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I'm proud of my piece (below) on the London Summit as a possible turning point in the battle against wildlife crime. I've been getting great feedback on it, and already it has over 13,000 Facebook shares/likes. Best part is the results of the conference. The final Declaration is stunning in moving the fight against trafficking in elephant ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts and other wildlife forward.

 

 

Photo of a row of shelved tiger heads at the National Wildlife Property Repository.

Illegal wildlife items like these tiger heads are stored at the U.S. National Wildlife Property Repository in Colorado before being destroyed or used in research.

Photograph by Kate Brooks/Redux

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published February 12, 2014

Bringing together heads of state and government ministers from 50 countries, Thursday's high-level summit on illegal wildlife trade may represent a turning point in the fight against wildlife crime.

The London summit—hosted by the British government and led by Prime Minister David Cameron, Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson—focuses on securing specific actions around elephants, rhinos, and tigers.

Topics being discussed include improving law enforcement and the role of the criminal justice system, reducing demand for illegal wildlife products, and supporting the development of sustainable alternative livelihoods.

Prince Charles and his son, William, the Duke of Cambridge, are attending, as are the presidents of Botswana, Chad, Gabon, and Tanzania. There is also a delegation from China.

A two-day International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium at the Zoological Society of London wraps up today. Organized by United for Wildlife (a partnership among Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF-UK, the Zoological Society of London, and the Royal Foundation), the attendees are identifying solutions to feed into the summit.

Participants expect the summit will yield a declaration that contains political commitments and high-level endorsement of actions to be taken, as well as resource commitments to deliver them.

Wish List

Conservation organizations would like to see heads of state and government ministers publicly support and endorse commitments for stemming wildlife trafficking made in previous months. These include the Marrakech Declaration, the Paris Declaration on illegal wildlife trade from the Africa-France Summit on Peace and Security, and the African Elephant Summit Urgent Measures.

They also want to see announcements of national-level commitments for addressing poaching, trafficking, and demand reduction—and clear mechanisms for follow-up.

"This conference is a timely opportunity to consolidate the progress made this year and ensure the high-level political support for the implementation of the commitments made so far," says TRAFFIC's director of policy, Sabri Zain.

Summit of All Summits?

It could be the summit of all summits, says Bas Huijbregts, head of WWF's campaign against illegal wildlife trade in central Africa. He hopes governments "from key source, transit, and demand countries will commit to measurable action on national levels, and that they agree to being held accountable on an annual basis by reporting back to the Secretary-General and the General Assembly of the United Nations on the status of national efforts to implement international commitments."

Already, a number of countries have announced new initiatives or taken action. On Tuesday, the United States announced a domestic commercial ivory ban.

Photo of the carcass of one of the two rhinos found near Letaba camp after it was shot on November 27, 2013 in The Kruger National Park, South Africa. ” width=
Photograph by Gallo Images/Foto24/Alet Pretorius/Redux
Rhinos, like this one in Kruger National Park in South Africa, are killed by poachers for their horns.

"We recognize, as do the British government and other participants, the fleeting window of opportunity available now to protect and sustain wild populations of elephants, rhinos, and other imperiled species," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

"We're acting now to identify and close loopholes in our current laws and regulations exploited by poachers and traffickers, and look forward at the summit to discussing avenues for closer international collaboration with participating nations."

Chad Taking Action

At a side event Tuesday evening at the House of Lords hosted by Space for Giants with the Tusk Trust and Gabon National Parks Agency, Chad's Environment Minister Mahamat Issa Halikimi announced that Chad will destroy its entire stockpile of ivory on February 20.

Tanzania's Minister for Natural Resources and Wildlife, Lazaro Nyalandu, said, "We are saying no to poaching; we are saying no to this trade."

Nyalandu tweeted that Tanzania supports banning the ivory trade to help international efforts against poaching. (Tanzania is a hot spot for ivory smuggling, with a significant portion of the illegal ivory seized in Asia coming from or through the country.)

Toward a Total Ivory Ban

"We may be at a turning point," says Mary Rice, executive director of the U.K.'s Environmental Investigation Agency. "The mood in the room today [at the ZSL Symposium and the Space for Giants event] is that everyone is now finally—and really—acknowledging the problem, and that we're moving closer to support of a ban on all ivory from all sources."

That optimism is echoed by many.

"This meeting offers a unique opportunity to draw a line in the sand and say 'so far and no further,'" said Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation.

Richard Ruggiero, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Asia and Africa branch chief, agreed, saying, "I usually am skeptical about meetings and talk shops, but the feeling here is that there is earnest momentum to address the ivory crisis."

High-level political commitment may be what's required to halt the emergency.

This gathering of world leaders "will provide a great impetus towards an enhanced professional law enforcement response against this criminal threat," said David Higgins, INTERPOL's assistant director for the environmental security subdirectorate.

Focus on Kingpins

Many countries are not effectively investigating wildlife crimes, noted John Sellar, an anti-smuggling, fraud, and organized crime consultant, at the symposium. But with directives from the top, governments could expand the mandate of those fighting drug and human trafficking, so that their potent techniques could also be brought to bear against wildlife crime.

Because poachers are easily replaced, the heads of organized wildlife crime networks must be targeted. For that, law enforcement should follow the financial trail, said Davyth Stewart, coordinator for the natural resources branch of INTERPOL's environmental security subdirectorate.

But the skills needed to follow the money are often not found in wildlife agencies. To address that deficiency, Stewart noted the need to establish National Environmental Security Task Forces (NESTs), or multiagency task forces, to coordinate investigations and draw on already available skills. Creating NESTs requires high-level directives.

Judicial action too is vital. "Nations have to commit to putting one major wildlife trafficker behind bars each week," urged Ofir Drori, coordinator of LAGA, a wildlife law enforcement network in Africa. "We need to move forward from counting dead elephants to counting criminals prosecuted and jailed."

Changing Consumer Habits

The summit has the potential to break bottlenecks in the fight against wildlife crime. Its results must also translate into shifts in consumer demand, a change that's crucial but difficult.

"Without a complementary effort to effectively address the persistent market demand that drives this trade, enforcement action alone may sometimes be futile," TRAFFIC's Zain said.

Illustrating the depth of the challenge was video footage released Wednesday by Hong Kong elephant conservation groups (Hong Kong for Elephants, ACE Foundation, and WildLifeRisk).

The video shows sales staff at Hong Kong's two largest ivory retailers advocating a variety of concealment techniques to potential consumers to help them evade detection by Hong Kong and mainland Chinese customs. It also revealed that staff heavily promote ivory products from freshly killed elephants that command a premium price.

"We'll never succeed in putting in jail all the wildlife traffickers or stop all the syndicates behind such a dirty business due to worldwide poverty and corruption," said Stéphanie Vergniault, founder and executive director of SOS Elephants of Chad and SOS Elephants of Congo.

"But we can stop the demand of these products and save endangered wildlife by creating awareness among the thousands of consumers who can realize that many species are under threat of extinction due to their greediness."

She hopes that once back home delegates at the summit "give very strong instructions to their own respective departments ... and [promote] zero tolerance for killing an endangered species like an elephant."

As EIA's Rice notes, "The proof is in the pudding. But my sense is that statements and commitments made on such a platform will be difficult to renege on."

Only time will tell.

 
National Geographic: New WildLeaks Website Invites Whistle-Blowers on Wildlife Crime PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Monday, 10 February 2014 14:03
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Photo of a bleached gorilla skull and gorilla hand in a display of confiscated illegal items by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service law enforcement.

A bleached gorilla skull and gorilla hand in a display of confiscated illegal items by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service law enforcement.

Photograph by Jonathan Newton, The Washington Post/Getty

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published February 10, 2014

Wildlife trafficking crimes often go undetected and unchallenged, even though they threaten many endangered species, including elephants, rhinos, and pangolins.

Similarly, trade in illegally logged timber continues unabated, destroying forests and wildlife habitat.

That could now change, with the launch February 7 of the first secure, online whistle-blower platform dedicated to wildlife and forest crimes, called WildLeaks.

Whistle-blowers can play a vital role in providing actionable insider information that can lead to the identification, arrest, and prosecution of criminals, traffickers, and corrupt governmental officials.

Wildlife law enforcement officers around the world welcome this new tool. "Public tip-offs to enforcement is the key to shutting down wildlife crime," notes Kevin Bewick, head of the Anti-Poaching Intelligence Group of Southern Africa.

"Anything created to encourage others to provide information on wildlife crime, regardless of its ultimate usefulness, is a good idea," says Patrick Bosco, special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bosco has worked covert operations for more than 25 years.

The force behind WildLeaks is a team headed by the California-based Elephant Action League that includes the Environmental Investigation Agency (UK), Oxpeckers Center in South Africa, EcoJust in the Netherlands, Global Eye (which operates in Africa and Southeast Asia), 100Reporters, and others who prefer to remain anonymous for security reasons.

National Geographic Special Investigations director Bryan Christy is a founding member. "The most important weapon the world has against international wildlife traffickers and corruption is an informed public," Christy says. "The goal of WildLeaks is to give voice to the powerless, to both animals and the humans who risk their lives to protect them."

Project leader Andrea Crosta, the head of Elephant Action League, discusses the rationale for WildLeaks and how it will work.

What is WildLeaks?

WildLeaks is a venue for those with pertinent information to share their knowledge while remaining anonymous and without going directly to law enforcement officials. We're hoping to receive information that can help us launch or continue an investigation.

That might include things like the names and personal details of wildlife traffickers, information on specific events, documents that demonstrate a financial transaction linked to a crime, names of ships or shipping companies involved in the traffic, names of international buyers, names of businesses linked to illegal logging, corrupt public officials, and even shops and factories that deal with illegal wildlife products, like ivory, for example.

Why is WildLeaks necessary?

I think that the global fight against wildlife crime, which we're not winning, is still based on old approaches and ineffective strategies and a poor use of technology. The criminal syndicates and groups behind wildlife crime are ahead of us, faster, more coordinated, and better connected. New and innovative approaches are urgently needed.

From my past work in security, I saw in many fields that this leaks-based approach works. Of course it takes time. You have to build trust. But organizations that have a service like this actually get usable and pertinent information through this system. So I thought, let's have it for wildlife and forest crime. Let's build something neutral and independent that can reassure the person who has the information that they will remain anonymous.

How did your undercover investigation into al Shabaab and the ivory trade inspire WildLeaks?

I come from the security world. I've done many investigations, so this wasn't my first one. When we did the investigation on al Shabaab and the ivory trade, I realized there are a lot of people who know a lot. But if you don't go there and take it out somehow, this important information stays with the people. It doesn't reach the entities that can actually work on these items.

Of course I'm not expecting a peasant or Somali poacher to go online and send us information. WildLeaks is not after little poachers. WildLeaks is after traffickers, traders, businessmen, corrupt officers, shipping companies—the big guys.

That investigation taught me that there's a lot of information around. It's not only within the bad guys. There's a lot of information [that] individuals and NGOs operating in Africa have, but they don't share it. Locally, they can't share it. An organization based in Kenya will never say something openly or denounce the law enforcement authority, unless it's really criminal. This is another reason to create something completely independent that is not based in those countries. Our secure servers are in Holland—and are very secure.

An article in The Ecologist called WildLeaks the WikiLeaks for wildlife. How are the two platforms similar or different?

We're not WikiLeaks. That's something that should be emphasized. There are two major differences. First, we're not after state or military secrets. We don't care about them. Second, the information we receive is not automatically leaked to the media. It's evaluated and verified, and then we decide [what to do with it]—maybe to launch an investigation, maybe to share it with trusted contacts within law enforcement, or maybe leak it to the media.

How does it work?

Once information is received, it will be evaluated and verified by the WildLeaks team of experienced and responsible professionals. Many of us have backgrounds in law enforcement, security, and investigations. We'll evaluate documents and tips using a sophisticated intelligence methodology, a vast network of contacts, and the latest technologies. For example, Bryan Christy, as an experienced investigative journalist [and author of National Geographic's October 2012 cover story, "Ivory Worship"], will help us evaluate information on ivory and China and advise on the best action to be taken.

It's complex, delicate work with a lot of responsibility, but the group of people we're starting with has the experience, the capacity, and the tools to do this job.

The idea is to pass on validated information to where it will do the most good. It might be to trusted law enforcement officers. Or we might undertake an investigation. We'll decide case by case if it's better and more useful to facilitate an investigation or leak it to the media. There's no rule, but the goal is always to expose wildlife crimes and put the responsible individuals behind bars.

How secure is WildLeaks?

The system is able to receive information in two different ways: confidential or anonymous. It's well explained on the website. In both cases, the information is fully encrypted. The difference between the two is that the confidential submission will go through the regular https, and the anonymous submission will go through the Tor network, which is also called the darknet (because it is sometimes used by the bad guys). Tor is a software that allows anybody to browse the Internet and exchange any kind of file in complete anonymity. It's made up of a chain of proxies that work to hide the user's original IP address (your Internet identity) so that no other third entity can see what you're doing. It's a very secure system.

In both cases we won't know who the sender is or where they're from. The two submission options (confidential and anonymous) are not for us. We receive exactly the same information. It changes from the sender's point of view. If, for example, the sender lives in a country with a repressive regime, like China, and maybe he's reporting about a corrupted officer, someone who is making money from wildlife crime, then maybe it's suggested to download the Tor browser.

We really wanted to build a state-of-the art system. For most cases https is enough. But because we live in a complex world, for sure people will test us. So we wanted to make it bulletproof.

How does WildLeaks differ from hotlines set up by national wildlife agencies?

There are two main differences. First, we're not a government agency. If you're partially involved in the crime you're reporting, you'll be much more comfortable reporting whatever it is to us in complete anonymity than to call or email a government entity.

Second, many hotlines are literally hotlines. You have to pick up the phone and call, which isn't as secure.

They're different in the way they're presented to and perceived by potential sources. It's better to have a secure platform that's completely neutral that allows you to do this in a very, very secure way.

What do you hope will change as a result of this platform?

Society has to reevaluate the role of whistle-blowers. Some societies see whistle-blowers negatively. I love the English term: whistleblowers. If you try to translate it into Italian or French, they're always negative words.

The idea behind the word is a whistle-blowing referee. You see something wrong, and you blow the whistle. Citizens should start seeing themselves as referees. If you see something bad, then you blow the whistle. We are just allowing them to blow the whistle in an anonymous way. So the whistle will be heard, but nobody will know that it's you.

This new approach is really powerful because a lot of people know a lot of things. They just need to be willing to share them.

 
National Geographic: Elephant Foster Mom: A Conversation with Daphne Sheldrick PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Friday, 06 December 2013 00:00
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A-Voice-for-Elephants-Blog.jpg

 

Photo of Daphne Sheldrick

Daphne Sheldrick. Photograph courtesy the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Orphaned elephants “can be fine one day and dead the next,” says Daphne Sheldrick, a Kenyan conservationist and expert in animal husbandry.

She knows. To date, she has fostered over 250 calves, first in partnership with her husband, David Sheldrick, founding warden of Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park and a legendary naturalist, and later (following his death in 1977) as part of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), which she founded in his memory.

Many are victims of poaching, like one-year-old Lima Lima, who was found weak and dehydrated. When she arrived at DSWT in February, Lima Lima was very thin and sickened from browsing on the invasive prickly pear plant (which can be poisonous) during her abandonment.

Lima Lima took milk from a hand-held bottle and was warmly greeted by the other elephants at the nursery, but she mourned for her lost family and often secluded herself, which is natural behavior for an older orphan who has gone through such trauma.

This year Kenya has lost some 250 elephants, with many infants and young left behind. Just in 2013, DSWT has taken in at least six calves orphaned by poachers, and another half dozen for reasons unknown (but likely poaching victims too).

Raising rescued elephant calves is challenging, and mortality rates are high. Part of the difficulty is that infants are fully dependent on their mother’s milk until they’re two years old and are not fully weaned until around four or five.

Baby elephants can’t tolerate the fat in cow’s milk. Finding a suitable substitute for elephant milk took Sheldrick 28 years of trial and error before she hit on a formula that contained coconut oil—likely the nearest replacement for the fat in elephant milk.

But as Sheldrick has seen time after time, raising an orphaned elephant requires not only meeting its physical needs but also its social and emotional ones.

Many are severely traumatized by what happened to their elephant family and “just want to die,” Sheldrick says. That’s why each new rescued elephant becomes part of a new “family” of keepers and other elephant orphans at DSWT.

Sheldrick talked to me about her experiences raising orphaned elephants and returning them to the wild. While best known for this work, she and DSWT do much more, including raising the orphans of other species, such as rhinos, helping with anti-poaching efforts, advocating against the ivory trade, and providing medical care to injured animals in the wild.

Sheldrick’s memoir, Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story, tells more stories about her life and the orphans. The DWST website provides current details and videos about the organization’s work with the orphans. You can also read National Geographic’s recent article about Orphan Elephants.

Photo of Daphne Sheldrick and Aisha the baby elephant

Daphne Sheldrick with baby elephant Aisha. Photograph courtesy the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Daily Routines

What is your typical day?

My day begins at 5 a.m., when I get up to do my own housework, and when it is quiet and peaceful. The orphans leave their night stockades at 6 a.m., after their first milk feed of the day, and head out into the forest behind my house, which is within Nairobi National Park.

Each orphan has a book where all the feeds are recorded, as well as consistency and frequency of stools, plus any other information relevant to the health of the individual. I study each book first thing in the morning to see if anything unusual is recorded, such as loss of appetite, not sleeping well, nightmares, etc. That might be an indicator of things going wrong.

Baby elephants are extremely fragile. They can be fine one day and dead the next. That is where experience comes in—just being able to detect any such signs early enough to do something about it.

I then put food out for the birds and squirrels before bathing and getting dressed.

By 8 a.m. I am ready for work, like everyone else. I liaise with Angela [Sheldrick’s daughter and the director of DSWT] to catch up on events, before starting work in my office dealing with the e-mails that have been passed over to me to answer. (All e-mails go to Angela first, who then delegates.)

At 11 a.m. the public visiting hour begins. Items for sale in aid of the orphans are displayed on a table, and the public begins filing in, each paying KSh 500 [about US$5.75]. The fee supports the orphans and [finances] the conservation fee that the Trust is obligated to pay the Kenya Wildlife Service monthly. Local schoolchildren, who come in free of charge (in their hundreds), access the orphans through another pathway at the other side of my home.

The orphans are brought into the compound in front of my house for their noon milk feed and, weather permitting, a mud bath. During that time the public stands behind a cordon in order not to crowd the elephants.

The elephants come in two sittings, the smaller orphans first, followed by the older ones. Each lot spends half an hour at the site so that the visitors can enjoy their antics, which include playing and rolling in the mud, some enjoying a game of football with the keepers, others taking a dust bath, etc.

At noon the elephants leave the compound with their keepers. They are out in the park until 5 p.m., when they return to their night stockades. [At that time] people who have supported the project by fostering one of the orphans are allowed to visit them and watch them being put to bed for the night.

Hanging outside each stockade or stable is a bucket, where the three hourly milk feeds are put throughout the night, [with] one of the keepers assigned to night milk-mixing duty.

What is a typical day for an orphaned elephant infant?

A typical day for the infant elephants revolves around their three hourly milk feeds and keeping them as happy as possible.

Keepers are with them 24 hours a day. A different keeper sleeps with a different elephant each night to ensure that no unhealthy, very strong bonds are forged. That could impact negatively on the baby elephant when a keeper takes time off, as he has obviously to do.

During the nursery stage, the baby elephants follow their human family, respond to tone of voice, etc. The keepers treat them only with tender loving care, as would their elephant family, because with elephants one reaps what one sows, and since they have very long memories, they must never be ill-treated in any way. Our keepers never carry even a twig.

Because the elephants love their keepers, they want to please them and act accordingly. They are incredibly smart, much more so than a human child of the same age, bearing in mind that at any age an elephant duplicates its human counterpart in terms of age progression.

Transitioning to the Wild

When is an elephant ready to move to the next level?

As to how we decide when to move an orphan from the nursery, that depends upon the individual. It is moved when it has healed completely and is over any post-traumatic stress. We never know how many elephants we will have at any one time. With the poaching as it is, they are coming in thick and fast.

Photo of Daphne Sheldrick and Eleanor the elephant

Daphne Sheldrick and Eleanor. Photograph courtesy the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

What happens when an orphan transitions to the next level?

The orphans are ready for the transition to Tsavo when they have healed psychologically and physically, usually around about the age of two years. However, elephants are totally milk dependent if orphaned under the age of three, and they need some nutritional help up until the age of five.

We now have a specially designed truck to move the elephants from the nursery to the rehabilitation centers run by the Trust in Tsavo. It has a large side panel that folds down against the loading bays, with three spacious compartments inside, so we can move three elephants at a time. It is air-conditioned, has special suspension, and space around the compartments for the keepers to move during the journey, as well as space for all the paraphernalia that must go too—milk, bottles, fodder for the journey, and so on.

What happens when orphans arrive at the rehabilitation center?

Somehow, at the other end, the ex-orphans, who are now living free as perfectly wild normal elephants again, know when others are on their way. They return to the compound to greet newcomers.

Every time nursery elephants are being moved from Nairobi, the ex-orphans mysteriously somehow know, and return to the stockade compound awaiting their arrival.

How they know this is one of those mysterious elephant mysteries that will never be fathomed by us humans. But it happens every time, even if the newcomers have never met any of the ex-orphans before, and even when the date of the move happens to change, and we have been unable to inform the keepers at the other end. Somehow, the ex-orphans always know.

I am convinced that elephants also have telepathic abilities and can read the hearts and minds of those they love, and that includes their keepers!

How amazing that the wild ex-orphans welcome new orphans! What happens with the older orphans already at the rehabilitation center?

There to greet newcomers are also all the keeper-dependent older orphans who have already been upgraded from the nursery. The newcomers are always lovingly embraced by the others, who gather around them to comfort and reassure. They surround them as they are taken out into the bush to browse for the rest of the afternoon after arrival, are with them when they go into their communal night stockades as a group and are fed their night milk feeds.

Gradually a change takes place. Rather than following their keepers, at the rehabilitation centers, the elephants begin to make their own decisions about where they want to browse, and the keepers merely follow the elephants.

When does an orphan fully transition to the wild?

Each elephant decides when it is sufficiently confident to make the transition to a wild life, encouraged by the ex-orphans, some of whom will turn up in a splinter group to escort a newcomer off for a “night out.” If during the course of the night, the newcomer decides he or she wants to return to the custody of the human family, one or two of the ex-orphans will escort the youngster back to the stockades and hand him or her over to the keepers again.

By the Numbers

How many elephants does DSWT have at each stage now?

Currently in the nursery we have 25 infants at the Northern Rehabilitation Center in Tsavo East, another 25 still keeper dependent, and at the Southern Rehabilitation Center in southern Tsavo East, another 17 still keeper dependent. Living wild are now over 70 ex-orphans, who, between them all, have about 12 wild-born babies.

How many orphaned calves has DSWT raised over the years?  How many have survived?  How many are now living in the wild?

We have successfully hand-reared over 150 orphaned elephant calves to date who have survived, and have lost about another 100 who came in too far gone for us to retrieve. Our three Mobile Veterinary Units have been able to save another 800 elephants, none of whom would otherwise have survived without our help. So we can proudly say that, with the help of caring public supporters from all over the world, DSWT has been able to save almost 1,000 elephants, which would certainly have otherwise added to the country’s death toll.

Photo of Daphne Sheldrick and Aisha the baby elephant

Daphne Sheldrick with baby elephant Aisha. Photograph courtesy the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Quality Keepers

How many keepers does DSWT have?

We have about 58 trained elephant keepers.

Keepers do far more than tend to the elephants; they serve as ambassadors and share stories too. How do they share information?

The keepers write the Keeper’s Diary, which records everything interesting that happens on a daily basis. That way they learn about elephants and disseminate that information to their friends and family. The public viewing at the nursery is another way of passing on information, but the monthly Keeper’s Diaries inform the global public, because they are posted on our website monthly.

What is the training for a keeper?

The training is simply being taught how to handle the calves, how to mix the milk, how to recognize anything unusual in the stools, or the appetite, and simply common sense and powers of observation, at which some are better than others, and some more caring than others.

Those more caring are most loved by the elephants. One can tell who is a good keeper simply by observing how the orphans respond to them.

While each keeper is special, who have been some of the most gifted? For instance, tell me about Mischak Nzimbi? What are their stories? What are the special talents and qualities of a keeper?

Elephants can read one’s heart. Those keepers who genuinely love their charges are special, such as Head Keepers Edwin Lusichi at the Nursery, Joseph Sauni down at the Voi Rehab Station, and especially Banjamin up at the Ithumba Rehab Centre. Mishak also has a special empathy, which is recognized by the elephants he handles. Some keepers regard their work with the elephants just as a job and a way of earning money; others genuinely care for and love the elephants. As I said before, with elephants one reaps what one sows.

Emotional Connection

What have been the most powerful examples of memory in elephants that you’ve seen? In your book you talked about Eleanor greeting her ex-keeper, despite not having seen him for 37 years.

Eleanor greeting her keeper after such a long period of time was a powerful example of elephant memory. The orphans will even recognize people they have known fleetingly in the nursery, selecting those who have cared most for them, and paid them the most attention. The orphans also recognize one another after separation when some are upgraded, and others left behind in the nursery.

I understand that elephants who are raised in the nursery and now live in the wild will bring back their own calves to “meet” their human family. Does this always happen?

Certainly all the nursery-reared orphans, who understand the origin of the calves that are relocated to the rehabilitation centers, have brought their wild-born babies to share with the keepers, who remain based at the rehabilitation centers.

Those who have been reared at the rehabilitation centers, and who never experienced the nursery, do not, because they suspect that we might have “snatched” the calves from the rightful mothers, as elephants from disrupted populations are prone to doing.

You’ve said, “When you raise an animal, you learn the inside story of that animal.” Who are some of the animals that have touched you the most? Who did you most connect with on a spiritual level?

When one has a human child, whom you see every day and raise from the moment it is born, one knows the “inside story,” that is, the mind of that child. It is the same with orphaned animals. Rearing the orphans one learns far more about them than any casual observer will ever know, because one learns how they feel and how they think.

The stories of some of the orphans who have touched my heart are recorded in my books. I love all the orphans, but the antelope orphans are some of the very special ones that I have been privileged to know intimately and have found fascinating and wonderful.

All animals are that, but the elephants are the most human emotionally. They are just like us but better than us.

Elephant calves are very fragile in early infancy and “can be fine one day and dead the next.” How do you handle loving and caring for an infant and watching it fade? Does it ever get easier? You’ve said, “Elephants have the courage to turn the page and focus on the living.” What have you learned from that?

We draw our emotional stamina from the elephants themselves, who suffer tragedy and heartbreak on an almost daily basis, but who find the courage to turn the page, and focus on the living after grieving just as acutely as us humans, and perhaps even more so.

Whenever we are faced with tragedy and death, after copious tears, one simply has to take one’s cue from the elephants, and we do. There will be others that need your help. It would be very selfish to simply turn them away because one finds it too painful to try to help them. So one has to simply focus on the living, rather than the dead, knowing that the dead are beyond any more suffering and pain, and that one has, at least, afforded them a comfortable end surrounded by compassion and love.

You’ve said, elephants “are just like us but better than us.” How? If we could have three “elephant” qualities, what would they be? For instance, what can elephants teach us (humans) about family, nurturing, and care?

Elephants are much more caring than us humans, even in infancy. All comfort and care for those younger. They have better powers of forgiveness than us humans, despite “never forgetting,” which in elephants happens to be true. They are much more welcoming of strangers. All the orphans instantly embrace and love any newcomer, showing caring and compassion by gently touching them with their trunks, etc.

Tea Time

You describe in your book, Love, Life, and Elephants, how teatime was a special ritual:

Teatime was a fixed routine in our home, much loved by all the orphans because not only did the rattle of teacups indicate that the afternoon walk was imminent but it also meant the appearance of the teatime biscuits I baked, made from a recipe handed down from generation to generation in my family. Most of the orphans viewed these as a treat, particularly Jimmy [a kudu] and [his best friend] Baby [a feisty eland]. Gazing over the verandah ledge with drooling mouths and looks of such longing in their large liquid eyes, they pleaded with every fiber of their being and were impossible to resist, even though feeding them the biscuits was rather like posting letters, so rapidly were they downed. After observing this handout for some time, Shmetty [an orphaned infant elephant] decided she should have one as well. It was hilarious to watch, as she clearly had absolutely no idea what to do with a biscuit, waving it around in her trunk, popping it in and out of her mouth and her ear and finally sucking it up in her trunk until it got blown out in an elephant sneeze, making us all jump.

Could you divulge your biscuit recipe?

Teatime during our Tsavo years was indeed a special ritual. The biscuit recipe is that of my grandmother:

Sheldrick’s Tea Biscuits

½ lb sugar

½ lb margarine or butter

1 lb. flour

1 dessert spoon baking powder

pinch of salt

2 eggs

Cream together sugar and butter, add the eggs, work in the flour, baking powder and salt to a rolling consistency. Roll the dough out. Add either nuts, raisins etc., if wanted, and cut into shapes. Bake in a moderate oven until lightly brown.

Taking Action

Your book details numerous waves of elephant poaching in Tsavo over its history. Again, the Tsavo area faces unprecedented levels of poaching. What needs to be done to reduce poaching? What can the average person do to help?

The poaching in Tsavo today is probably worse than it has ever been. To control it requires a two-pronged approach: radical penalties at this end for poaching perpetrators (perhaps even the death sentence as elephant populations run out); and the international community to shame the consumer countries into curbing their appetite for ivory, plus a very strong effort to rein in the international syndicates of smugglers, who also deal in drugs, etc.

Everyone can do something by raising awareness of the poaching crisis, and by raising funds to help those who are able to make even a small difference at the field level to protect and preserve the elephants. Otherwise, elephants could be extinct in the wild within the next 15 years.

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