One of the great tragedies (among many) of the poaching crisis in Africa is the number of orphan young elephants. If a young elephant is separated from their mother before two years of age, they have a high risk of dying. In Zambia there exists the Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP)which is one of only two official orphanages in all of Africa.
The young elephants at the project range in age from four months to three years and they live on a tiny seven acres of land. The orphanage provides security and also feeds them formula every three hours around the clock. Without the special milk formula, they have no chance of surviving. In fact, regular cow's milk will kill them.
National Geographic reports:
When an elephant arrives at the nursery, it is given a name, often based on the circumstances of its rescue. Musolole, for example, was a five-month old when poachers shot his mother in 2011.
Officers from the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA)—the wildlife resources arm of the Zambian government—heard the gunshot. They found the poachers as they were hacking the tusks out of the mother’s face, her calf standing nearby.
Gunfire was exchanged, and two ZAWA officers ultimately died; one of them was named Musolole.
“It was a traumatic case,” Murton says. “We didn’t understand the full story until we got there. We just had a phone call saying, ‘Look there’s a tiny elephant—you need to go to this location and pick it up.’ And when we got there, [the officers] were emotional because two of their colleagues were shot dead. But they also had managed to rescue this baby elephant.”
The officers asked Murton to name him Musolole. “There was so much pressure that this young elephant didn’t die on us,” Murton says. “Everyone was seeing him as a symbol of hope.” Today, Musolole is a sociable and healthy two-year old.
When EOP was launched, rescuers brought in two orphans a year. Now, Murton says, the organization receives six to seven calls annually. She attributes this swell to the surge in poaching, from which “Zambia is no exception.”
But she also thinks there is increasing awareness about EOP. First, the nursery gives free, daily talks about the project and the elephants. Also, EOP has a weekly presence on a rural community radio show.
Murton believes this show was instrumental in the rescue of the most recent elephant, a four-month old named Nkala. “The community, as soon as they found him, phoned ZAWA and said, ‘Send up the elephant orphanage, we’ve heard about them on the radio!’ And that was great, the fact that the community—rather than eating Nkala or leaving him [to die]—knew there was a place that he could go.”
Nkala has been at EOP for more than a month now. A tiny thing, he’s inquisitive and confident, but hasn’t fully integrated with the herd.
“He’s still going through a bit of a depression,” Murton says, stroking him. “He’s lost his family, and he’s not entirely bonded with these other elephants yet. He’s probably very sad. It can take a long time.”
Eventually, Musolole, Nkala, and the other orphans will be transferred to a “release” site in Kafue National Park.
“We chose Kafue as the release area because it has one of the most intact wild elephant populations in Zambia,” says Sport Beattie, CEO of Game Rangers International (GRI), the nonprofit parent organization of EOP. “We estimate about 5,000 elephant are roaming freely in the park.”
Like many parks in Africa, Kafue has had a tragic history of poaching, and when elephants were being slaughtered on a daily basis, the survivors hid in an area called the Ngoma Forest: “They would hide in there and then venture out to feed and drink water, then go back,” Beattie says. “The forest was their sanctuary. Although the park is much better protected now, they maintain that habit today.”
Beattie therefore built the orphan release site, called Camp Phoenix, on the edge of Ngoma, “so when the wild elephants and the orphans drink at nearby water, the interaction is maximized. That will hopefully encourage the orphans to remember that they are, in fact, elephants. As the whole idea of this project is to get them back into the wild, to join up with the wild herds, continue breeding, and repopulate again in Kafue.”