National Geographic : 2011 Sep
• By Charles Siebert Photographs by Michael Nichols Along the northern rim of Kenya's Nairobi National Park, a mysteri- ous array of brightly colored wool blankets can be seen draped over the gnarled branches of some of the forest's upwardly braiding cro- ton trees. Set against the region's otherwise drab browns and greens, the hanging blankets could be construed as remnants of some ancient tribal ritual---until shortly before ve each evening, when their function as part of a new interspecies experiment becomes apparent. O in the distance a few upright gures in bright green coats and crumpled white safari hats appear, calling out names in trilling, high- pitched voices: "Kalama!" "Kitirua!" "Olare!" All at once baby elephants emerge from the brush, a straggled procession of 18 ap-eared brown heads, their long trunks steering their bulbous he with a heavily hypnotic grace. ey come to rest beneath the color-draped trees, where the keepers tie a blanket around each one for warmth before resuming the trek home. Home is the Nairobi nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the world's most successful orphan-elephant rescue and reha- bilitation center. e nursery takes in orphan elephants from all over Kenya, many victims of poaching or human-wildlife con ict, and raises them until they are no longer milk dependent. Once healed and stabilized at the nursery, they are moved more than a hundred miles south- east to two holding centers in Tsavo National Park. ere, at their own pace, which can be up to eight to ten years, they gradually make the transition back into the wild. e program is a cutting-edge experiment in cross-species em- pathy that only the worst extremes of human insensitivity could have necessitated. ese are sad and perilous days for the world's largest land animal. Once elephants roamed the Earth like waterless whales, plying ancient migratory routes ingrained in their prodigious memories. Now they've been backed into in- creasingly fragmented territories. When not being killed for their tusks or for bush meat, they are struggling against loss of habitat due to human population pressures and drought. A 1979 survey of African elephants estimated a population of about 1.3 million. About 500,000 remain. In Asia an estimated 40,000 are le in the wild. And yet even as the elephant popula- tion dwindles, the number of human-elephant con icts rises. In Africa, reports of elephants and villagers coming into conflict with each other appear almost daily. A recent arrival at the Nairobi nursery was an elephant named Murka, rescued near Tsavo National Park with a spear lodged deep between her eyes and gaping spear and axe wounds along her back and sides. e spear had penetrated ten inches, rupturing her sinuses, which prevented her from using her trunk to drink. Her deep wounds were lled with maggots. Most likely orphaned by poachers who killed her mother for pro t, the one-year-old baby is believed to have been subsequently attacked by local Maa- sai tribesmen who were angry about losing their traditional grazing land to the park. A mobile vet unit was able to tranquilize her, clean her wounds, and extract the spear.