Interview with Angela Sheldrick, CEO of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Interview with Angela Sheldrick, CEO of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
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How much does it cost per day to keep an orphan elephant?
Caring for orphaned elephants is a huge financial undertaking and it can cost as much as $1,000 a month to care for an orphaned elephant depending on their age. This includes ongoing costs like specialist formula milk, Keepers’ salaries, our Keepers’ canteen, uniforms, elephant supplementary feeds, equipment including tractors, water bowsers and their running/maintenance costs and more.

When can the public visit DSWT?
Our Nursery in Nairobi is open to the public for one hour each day between 11am and 12 midday. During this time, the orphans arrive for their midday mud bath and feeding and our Head Keeper explains what we do through our Orphans’ Project.  Entrance to the Nursery for the visiting hour requires a minimum contribution of $7 US dollars / 500 Kenya shillings per person (aged 4 and above). For current foster parents only, we also offer a special visit at 5pm where foster parents can see the orphans return to the stockades for the night and watch them have their evening milk feed and be put to bed by our carers. This evening visit is by advance appointment only.

How do I book a stay in one of the DSWT’s Eco-Lodges?
Foster parents to our orphans have the opportunity to book to stay at one of our lodges near our Reintegration Units in Tsavo East National Park, namely Ithumba Camp and Ithumba Hill, or Umani Springs in the Kibwezi Forest. Inquiries to stay at one of these lodges can be made through our office at [email protected] Access to see the orphans at these units who are slowly being reintroduced to their wild environment is at 6am, the 11am feed and at 5pm when they return to the stockades for the night.

You also look after Maxwell, a blind rhino, at the Trust. How did you find him? 
Maxwell was found by our keepers during one of their daily walks in Nairobi National Park with their young elephant charges. They heard his cries and went to investigate, upon which they came across one-year-old Maxwell who was running about aimlessly, calling for his mum. The little calf was monitored for the rest of the day but, with no sign of his mum, it was decided that we had to intervene if we were to prevent him falling prey to predators.

It was immediately obvious that Maxwell was blind but in good physical condition and in the months following his rescue we tried, albeit unsuccessfully to restore his sight. Sadly, surgery could not improve what turned out to be a congenital condition and because of this, we offer him a ‘forever home’ at our Nursery since his blindness means he could not size up his opponents during territorial disputes. He’s a very happy rhino who loves his face being stroked and a good old scratch, as well as his occasional treats of bananas.

How many elephants are currently in the Trust? 
The Trust is currently caring for 28 milk-dependent elephants at our Nairobi Nursery and caring for a further 52 milk-dependent orphans across our three Reintegration Units. To date, the DSWT has successfully hand-raised more than 230 orphaned elephants, with more than 100 going on to return back to a life in the wild. The Great Elephant Census estimated Kenya’s elephant population to be around 26,000 in 2017.

Are they expected to stay with you for a certain period to ensure continuity of care?
The DSWT employs more than 60 Kenyans as Keepers, from across the country.

Raising orphans is a long-term commitment, in some cases taking up to ten years, and so our Keepers are employed on an equally long-term basis. This is to ensure that the orphans, who have already experienced profound loss, have a continuity of care throughout their recovery and reintegration journey which can span a decade.

None of our Keepers tends to a specific baby. Instead, the Keepers work on rotation to avoid a calf becoming too attached to any one person. This rotation system extends to overnight duties when the Keepers sleep in the orphans’ stockades so that they can continue the three-hourly milk feeds. This prevents any detrimental effect on the babies should an individual keeper need to take time off, which is imperative as our Keepers do of course take annual leave so that they can spend time with their other families! By rotating the Keepers, we, therefore, prevent any negative impact that could otherwise arise from a temporary separation.  As orphans, all of the babies are emotionally fragile, and so we ensure they have a loving family of keepers to provide continuity of care as a team.

How many reintegration centres are there in Tsavo? 
The DSWT operates three Reintegration Units in the Greater Tsavo Area. Two are located within Tsavo East National Park (Voi and Ithumba) which offer orphaned elephants an incredible and vast untouched wilderness in which to roam. It’s also home to Kenya’s largest elephant population and is fully protected by ten DSWT/KWS De-Snaring Teams, our Canine Unit and our Aerial Surveillance. We typically move orphaned elephants from our Nursery to one of our three Reintegration Units when they reach the age of three.

The environment in Tsavo, however, is unsuitable for orphans that have come into our care suffering serious and debilitating injuries – most of these inflicted at the hands of humans before their rescue. As such, in 2014, we built a third Reintegration Unit in the Kibwezi Forest for vulnerable orphans needing a gentler environment in which to reintegrate back into the wild.

You also run anti-poaching units in Tsavo, mobile veterinary units, de-snaring and community outreach projects. How do you fund this?
All of our conservation projects are funded by voluntary donations, with our digital foster program being one of our main sources of income. Through this program an individual can choose to foster an orphan in our care, for as little as $50 a year, enabling us to undertake our life-saving projects in Kenya. As well as donations from individuals, trusts and foundations also provide financial support for our work as do select corporate partners. We are not funded in any way by any government.

What action does the Trust take to combat poaching?
The DSWT operates 11 De-Snaring Teams across Kenya (10 in Tsavo, 1 in Meru National Park) alongside our Canine Unit and Aerial Surveillance. These field teams undertake a multitude of activities to combat poaching, including working with communities to gain intelligence, undertaking deterrence patrols, setting ambushes and apprehending poaching suspects.

These field teams have been hugely successful and, over a three-year period, we saw a 50% decrease in poaching within Tsavo. The ‘boots on the ground’ presence of field teams like these are vitally important to ending poaching but, if it is to be completely eradicated, these efforts must also be matched by a sustained commitment at the policing and judicial level to prosecute and correctly sentence those found guilty of wildlife crime. When the punishment does not outweigh the risk, there will always be an incentive to commit wildlife crime. The DSWT works with local communities living on the borders of the Tsavo National Parks to improve livelihoods, educational standards and, importantly, instil an awareness and passion for the environment.

Do you foresee a time when the demand for ivory will diminish? 
We have every reason to hold fast to this hope, as we have seen and lived through it before. After a ban on international trade in ivory in 1989, the world saw a marked decrease in demand for ivory and correspondingly in poaching too, and elephant populations rebounded in many areas. In fact, by 2004 in China, only two ivory carving factories remained, demonstrating the impact the ban had on demand.

In recent years, consumer education campaigns in places like China look to be having some effect and, in a positive step, at the beginning of this year, China’s own ban on ivory and ivory products came into force. Though its impact is yet to be determined, China’s ban has the potential to be the saviour of elephants if proper regulation, continued education campaigns and stiff law enforcement is maintained in alignment.

We are mindful though that reducing demand by itself will not solve the problem. Drivers for poaching include poverty and corruption, as well as ineffective and lax sentencing. Without addressing these causes, the killing of elephants will continue.

Editorial Team

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