Normally, we take at least a sentence or two to introduce our Dateline reports, but with our final offering tonight, I'm just going to pose a triple-barrelled question...What's grey... weighs a hundred kilos... and without constant love and attention, will die? Well, here's Aaron Lewis in East African Kenya with the heart-rending answer...
REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
Rounding up a traumatised baby elephant is not an easy job.
MESHAK, ELEPHANT WHISPERER (Translation): When the elephants first arrive they’re very stressed because they’ve seen their mothers killed. They’re very aggressive because humans killed their mothers.
Meshak is a highly skilled keeper, an elephant whisperer.
MESHAK (Translation): They’re really aggressive and want to push people around but we do our best to calm them by giving them water and milk. We wrap them in blankets to help them calm down and to show we’re not the enemy.
Baby Sities is only 6 months old, she's still too young to feed herself and in the wild she's already be dead. But she thrives since she was brought here to the shelter wildlife trust at only 7 weeks old.
ABDI: Actually they believe she's a poaching victim, we have lots of food for elephants down there, there's water everywhere, we can't say that the mother died of hunger or maybe succumbed to the drought.
Abdi used to be afraid of elephants but after 7 years of working here he now sees them as family a family that's now sadly going fast. Elephant rescues like this one, last year, are on the rise, due to increased poaching and the ravages of drought. This baby elephant was found next to its dying mother. When a baby elephant is orphaned the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is brought in for what can be a dramatic rescue.
Often the orphan is still with a herd. But a herd of bull elephants like this one can be more of a danger to the young animal than a help. After the hungry baby is fed milk and restrained, they're brought here, to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It exists thanks to a lifetime of work by David's widow, Dame Daphne Sheldrick.
DAME DAPHNE SHELDRICK, CONSERVATIONALIST: Elephants of course are amazing animals and I've been lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time and to have been taught by the animals themselves about just how wonderful they are.
The early days of the wildlife trust brought lots of heart ache, as Daphne struggled to work out how to save her adopt babies.
DAME DAPHNE SHELDRICK: So they all come in, those little ones, desperate for milk and so the secret is to get them taking milk just as soon as possible, because without milk they are going to decline and probably die within two or three days.
But getting them to take the milk is often half the battle, coming up with the right elephant milk formula was far more difficult.
ABDI: It took Daphne Sheldrick more than 20 years of trials and error to come up with the milk formula that would suit the elephant. First of all she tried with some cow milk and most of them died.
DAME DAPHNE SHELDRICK: They came in intermittently, we tried this and that and they all died and eventually I found they lived a lot longer on skim milk with no fat, but they wasted away, so I knew it was a fat problem, then I went around hunting for a baby formula with no cow's milk fat. That's the secret, they are totally intolerant to the fat of cow's milk and the nearest thing to the fat in elephant's milk is coconut. Once they see the others, are comfortable with their keepers, and they start taking milk, they recognise the bottle and they understand that that is what they need and elephants communicate with one another, then it's simple, you can tame a completely wild baby elephant within a day.
ABDI: This is my best friend Kalama, my favourite, she knows me very well. Since the first day she came in, when we got the report of a baby elephant found in Northern Kenya, I was one of the keepers who went down there to pick her up and then since that time we were closer to each other, she likes hugging me, you can see, look at this jealous one here now, that's Tumarine.
What these animals seem to want most is affection. Tumarine keeps grabbing my arm and putting my fingers in her mouth to suckle like her mother. And with the keepers spend most of their time doing is just being present with the animals, touching them, making sure they know someone is around. It can be very traumatic for the animals if they feel like they've been left alone, if they get disconnected from the herd. You will hear them bellow and run in your direction, hoping to find the lost animals and lost keepers. As the elephants grow the keepers teach them the skills that a mother would teach in the wild - how to have a mud bath to protect from the sun, and how to forage for food.
ABDI: At this age we try to teach them how to browse, if they don't reach the higher leaves up there, you can see them trying to stand down, stretching their trunks and they can't reach up there, so a keeper will come close and will help them to hold it down for them or break it for them and bring it down here. She's a very good student.
This close bond between keeper and orphan is possible in part because the elephants are highly sophisticated creatures.
DAME DAPHNE SHELDRICK: They have all sorts of attributes we don't have, they communicate with sound over distance, they can hear seismic sound through their feet, they have an amazing intuition, which is unexplainable and they are, they have all the emotions of the human as well.
Another lesson that the elephants learn here is how to relate to other animals because the Sheldrick Trust fosters all kinds of orphans like this little creature a Tree Hyrax, that was rescued from a cat and brought to Daphne's daughter.
ABDI: The guy took the baby hyrax to Angela to keep her until she grows and then - and then we will take her to, or him to back to the wild and he will continue with his life.
A slightly more threatening resident is Malim, the baby black rhino.
ABDI: He can be dangerous but most of these animals who come under our care, mostly they know that we are their, like their older family members, so they can be dangerous, maybe for new people who come here, but for people like us, he respects us, he knows everyone, he knows these are like his family, so he respects us.
While they work hard to save individual animals, everyone at the Sheldrick Trust is worried about the decline in biodiversity in eastern Africa.
DAME DAPHNE SHELDRICK: We suffered a terrible drought last year and what you can see in the nursery is a microcosm on what is going on in the bush. We had 33 orphaned elephants come in last year, whereas all the previous years we've been operating which is 30 plus, we've never had more than 12 or 14.
As the work load grows the keepers here remain focussed on helping each orphaned animal they take into their care. For Abdi, tonight that means sleeping next to Kalama, just like a new mother would.
REPORTER: So Abdi, where are you sleeping tonight?
ABDI: This is my bunker up here. This here we have a mattress. When they're sleeping, they go where you are, to your bed. They want to see if you are there. That's the most part I like.
The hardest part of Abdi's job comes later when he has to say goodbye to a healthy grown elephant ready to go back to the wild.
ABDI: All of a sudden the baby has to leave, she has to go and you have to stay behind, anyway it's difficult, it's difficult to let her go, but there's nothing you could do, because she has to go and continue with her life.
GEORGE NEGUS: Not a dry eye many the house I will bet - The lovely elephant whisperer. And I know how it works, their ears are so big, did I say that? There's more on our website, including a link to information about that elephant orphanage. Go to sbs.com.au/dateline.
Original Music composed by
17th October 2010