African elephants are under extreme pressure. Their very existence as a keystone species is under threat like never before. But how has this catastrophic state of affairs come about? Longstanding Travel Africa reader John Dennis investigates the Elephant Orphanage Project with Game Rangers International, one of the organisations fighting to save them
The main threat to elephants is poaching. It is estimated that an elephant is killed by poachers every 15 minutes. However, this is not the only reason for their deaths: as the demand for land increases and human settlements expand, their habitat diminishes. This inevitably results in human-elephant conflict, which often results in animals being killed. Furthermore, young elephants are sometimes abandoned by their parents if they are ill and cannot keep pace with the rest of the herd.
Fortunately, there are a few organisations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere dedicated to the protection and preservation of elephants. I had the privilege of spending a month as a volunteer with one of these groups, namely the Game Rangers International’s Elephant Orphanage Project in Zambia.
The scheme for helping young elephants started back in 2001, when an orphaned elephant was taken to the zoo in Lusaka. Expert help and support was needed, and fortunately, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation agreed to help on the condition that the orphan was released back into the wild. From this early stage the project grew and expanded to become the Elephant Orphanage Project of today, with its ethos of ‘Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release’.
In 2007, Game Rangers International (GRI) was established as a conservation organisation, working alongside the Zambian Department of National Parks & Wildlife to protect animals, especially elephants, in the Kafue National Park. At about the same time, a makeshift release facility was created in Kafue National Park and from that, the GRI Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP) was born. Since then, a more permanent, specialised facility has been established in Kafue at Camp Phoenix, named after the very first orphan.
To start with, the Lusaka faction of the venture operated out of temporary accommodation, but as a number of very young and sick elephants were taken into care it became apparent that a specialised unit was needed, with round-the-clock care and close veterinary support. In 2011, a site was found on the 650ha game farm of Lilayi Lodge, where the Lilayi Elephant Nursery now operates. It is here that the youngest rescued calves receive the dedicated care needed to get them through the vital early months and years before they are taken to the Kafue Release Facility at Camp Phoenix.
At present, there are two orphans at Lilayi; the latest arrived in January 2016. A small calf was found stranded on an island in the Lower Zambezi. Emaciated and stressed, he was transferred there and given IV fluids and intensive care. The full-time attention put Muchi (as he has been christened) on the road to recovery and he is now grazing and browsing normally. Muchi, which is short for Muchichili, is the Goba word for the Natal mahogany tree that grows on the island where he was found.
The recovery and release progress of a rescued orphan is monitored by phases graded from 1 to 6. Phase 1 elephants are the newest, youngest arrivals, aged 1 to 3 years, and are fully dependent on the programme for food, security and emotional support. As they progress, becoming more independent and less reliant on keepers, they will be ranked higher and transferred to the Kafue Release Facility at Camp Phoenix, where they still have the security of a boma and fenced paddock, but during the day they are allowed into the national park. The ultimate objective is for all the orphans to reach Phase 6, where they can live independently in the wild.
As well as looking after the physical wellbeing of the orphans, the staff members at Lilayi and Camp Phoenix conduct ongoing in-depth behavioural observation studies. It appears that the amount of published data relating to the rehabilitation of orphaned elephants is very small, so over the past few years EOP has started conducting its own research. It monitors and records the activities of the young elephants according to a detailed list of pre-determined criteria. This is where I became involved with the project.
I was based at Camp Phoenix conducting behavioural studies. This entailed observing and recording, at pre-arranged times, the actions and reactions of a particular elephant. A rota schedule lists the names of all 10 elephants currently at Camp Phoenix, enabling them all to be monitored in turn, at regular intervals. Two study sessions are carried out per day, the first at 7am, when the orphans are released into the park and free to wander where they like. For this study I would walk with the elephants – accompanied by their keepers – noting their feeding habits and other actions and reactions to the wild environment. The second study, later in the morning, was conducted with the elephants all together and back in the secure enclosure. This helps to monitor welfare in addition to understanding the development of social relationships between unrelated orphans. As well as being used for informing release protocols, it is hoped that one day this information will be published and make EOP the leading authority on orphaned elephant rehabilitation and release.
However, there is still one massive hurdle to overcome: illegal poaching. All the brilliant work carried out by all the staff and volunteers at GRI will count for nothing if, when the orphans are eventually released, they meet the same fate as the many thousands that have gone before. Much more needs to be done at government level if this odious business is to be stamped out. Every three years the member countries of CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) hold a conference where key decisions are made. The September 2016 conference is being held in Johannesburg, South Africa, but it remains to be seen if it can reduce the levels of illegal ivory poaching, which is still occurring at levels unsustainable for the African elephant.
It is encouraging that both President Obama of the USA and President XiJinping of China have spoken out against their domestic ivory markets, and the EU, Niger, Uganda, Kenya and India are among many that have condemned the ivory trade. If the member countries of CITES can get their act together and consign this obnoxious trade to history then maybe, just maybe, little Muchi and the other orphans can grow up, with the help of GRI and the EOP, and be released to take their rightful places as wild, free elephants.
To read more about Game Rangers International’s conservation projects and to do your part, visit gamerangersinternational.org