Caring for orphans


African elephants are under threat due to poaching and human-elephant conflict. As a result, babies are left without the support of their mothers. Sarah Kingdom visits the Lilayi Elephant Nursery and Kafue Release Facility in Zambia to learn more…

Five facts

• 37: The number of African countries elephants wander through.

• 2004: The year when elephants were first listed Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

• 415 000: The approximate number of elephants in the wild.

• 25 000: The estimated number of elephants killed in Africa annually. This equates to one every 15 minutes.

• 2 years: The majority of elephants under this age will not survive without their mother’s care and
her nutrient-rich milk.

Game Rangers International (GRI) is a non-profit organisation in Zambia working in partnership with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) to empower rangers and local communities to conserve nature.

An orphan drinks milk. Photo: Game Rangers International

GRI’s Wildlife Rescue Department began with the establishment of the Elephant Orphanage Project in 2007. It includes the Elephant Nursery just outside Lusaka, where orphans are cared for after being rescued. Older orphans are gradually reintegrated back into the wild at the release facility in Kafue National Park.

At the Lilayi Elephant Nursery baby elephants are looked after 24 hours a day. A milk-dependent orphan requires milk every three hours.

Trained keepers take orphans for walks, feed them and stay close at hand to provide reassurance at night. The keepers play a vital role in the emotional and social recovery of the young elephants, and become
a ‘mother figure’.

When weaned at approximately three years of age, they are moved to the release facility with at least one social playmate, where they join older orphaned elephants. Here they learn to live more independently and spend much of their time wandering freely through the bush.

GRI have rescued 48 elephant calves to date, most of which were found wandering around alone, starving and distressed.

The elephant orphanage was started in 2007 when a one and a half year old calf was discovered alone and helpless after losing her mother to poachers. The orphaned calf was taken to what is now the Game Rangers International Kafue National Park Release Facility. Healthy but traumatised, Chamilandu (as she was named) struggled to come to terms with the loss of her mother and her family. It took a great deal of love and attention from the keepers to give her the reassurance to adjust.

Chamilandu is now the matriarch of the orphan herd, mothering and comforting the younger orphans. She has been free-roaming in Kafue for the past four years and interacts with wild elephants. She recently returned to the boma for the birth of her own calf – Zambia’s first wild-born calf from an orphaned elephant.

It is significant that she returned to the boma to give birth. Lacking the support network of older females, her calf would have been vulnerable to predators. By returning to the boma the keepers could provide her with critical support. During this time of stress, excitement and raging hormones, the relationship between the keepers and the elephants was put to the test.

An elephant calf drinks milk. Photo: Game Rangers International

Elephant and facilities manager, Theo Olivier says, “In wild elephant herds, females are involved in the births, whereas males are kept away by older females. Being an orphan herd of younger, inexperienced and a majority of male elephants, it was essential that we supported her. We needed to manage the situation very carefully to ensure the best outcome and safety for the mother, her calf and the rest of the herd.”

The new mother is supporting her calf as he makes his first forays into Kafue National Park. Initially she rarely moved from the boma, staying close and returning for rests and to sleep. She is starting to venture further afield with her baby.

According to Rachael Murton, head of GRI’s Wildlife Rescue Programme, it is crucial that she returns to the boma in the evenings, especially without the support of older females. “There are many predators in the park that would take such a small calf, and as a lone elephant Chamilandu is not adequately equipped to defend him. It is incredible to think that we have come so far with Chamilandu’s rehabilitation and re-wilding, and yet sadly due to the herd gender dynamics she does not have the elephant support she needs.”

Mkaliva, one of the little elephants being cared for. Photo: Game Rangers International

Costs average around US$2 500 per rescue, but the expenses continue to mount – each orphan being cared for costs approximately $35 000 a year. For more information about the orphanage and organisation, visit


Written by Sarah Kingdom

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