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Elephant Orphans: Visiting Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Simply put, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t dream of visiting the elephant orphanage in Nairobi. Yes, I am aware of how crazy that sounds, but as a kid I repeatedly watched documentary specials that transported me to this Kenyan wildlife operation. I was transfixed by their ability to rescue these orphans and get them back into nature. The babies each had their own heartbreaking stories, but once they arrived at the orphanage their fate had the opportunity to shift for the better. The skilled caretakers stayed with the little ones 24 hours a day, even bunking with them to ensure their comfort. Sheldrick Wildlife Trust seemed like a magical place where the impossible could be nurtured by massive, oversized bottles of milk and anything became possible.

Two elephants at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Orphan elephant calves during their midday activities.

Is Sheldrick Wildlife Trust an Ethical Organization to Support?

Fast forward to 2021, my dreaming finally paid off as I stepped foot into this magical organization and experienced their life saving work firsthand. But as with any of my wildlife travels, I wanted to ensure that my childhood rose-tinted glasses weren’t misleading me to an experience that was anything but ethical for wildlife. I needed to ensure that Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was a fully conservation driven organization, with only the highest ethical practices. So, as always, I dove into the research, read countless articles and reviews, and exhaustively vetted Sheldrick as an organization. I couldn’t find one trace of unethical practices for wildlife. Since 1977, Sheldrick truly had been leading a conservation movement in Kenya and around the world. Over the course of four decades, they have successfully raised over 260 orphaned elephants and rhinos. Their work spans beyond rehabilitation, Sheldrick even works to provide veterinary assistance to wild animals in need and leads anti-poaching units that have removed over 160,000 wildlife snare traps. Sheldrick Wildlife Trust clearly exceeded all expectations for impacting wildlife in Kenya. 

Four baby elephants playing in the mud!
The main focus for the elephant calves was on the red mud for their midday bath.

To show my support, even before beginning our honeymoon, I made sure that Lance and I became foster parents to some of Sheldrick’s beloved orphans. I quickly became engrossed in the daily lives of five little elephants: Enkesha, Luggard, Larro, Bondeni, and Roho. Sheldrick has perfected the art of sharing compelling content through storytelling. Their foster emails and posts made it impossible for me not to crave every detail of how Enkeska was adapting with her healing trunk, or how Larro was growing as a mini matriarch. Just when I thought I knew Sheldrick Wildlife Trust forward and back, I was granted an even clearer view into their ethical work for wildlife. But nothing could quite prepare me for stepping foot into their world and seeing it all firsthand. 

three men watching baby elephants play in the mud
Milo filming a close up view from the main mud bath at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

How to Visit Sheldrick Wildlife Trust: Elephant Orphanage

Most folks are only aware of two ways to visit the elephant nursery in Nairobi, the public midday visits and the more exclusive evening foster visits. But there is a third option as well, one that Lance and I thoroughly enjoyed on our honeymoon! Each of the three options to visit the elephant nursery are tightly managed, and are limited to just one hour each, to ensure that the elephants still enjoy a largely undisturbed daily routine. Let’s break down the three options as they vary in price, group size, and experience.  

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust baby elephant mud bath
Group of elephant calves enjoying their mud bath at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Public Visit: Midday – 11am-12pm
For 1 hour each day the orphanage in Nairobi is opened to the public. Historically this visit was known for massive crowds roped off away from the elephants enjoying their lunchtime bottle break and mud baths. Following Sheldrick’s extended closure during the height of the global pandemic (March 2020-July 2021), this visit has now returned with new booking requirements. Guests are required to purchase their tickets in advance, no walk-ups. Additionally, the entrance fee has increased to $15 USD for each visit. This advanced ticketing system now ensures that each midday visitation is limited to 100 guests from 11am-12pm.   

Foster Visit: Evening – 5pm-6pm
This opportunity is only offered to foster parents who have adopted one of the wildlife residents in Sheldrick’s care. Fostering is a delightful way to support this vital work from across the globe. This option is a bit more private, with fewer people, and provides a more intimate perspective of the nursery’s daily routines. Like the midday encounters, these foster visits must be booked in advance. It is highly recommended to do this months before your anticipated visit, since this opportunity has a smaller capacity limit than the midday visits. These evening foster visits allow guests to observe bedtime rituals, starting with a baby elephant stampede from the forest. The little ones know that 5pm means the beginning of bedtime, and they race off to their designated stalls where a fresh bottle of milk is waiting for them. For the youngest elephants their stalls include a raised bunk bed for the caretakers to sleep with the orphans as they adapt to their new home, and to provide them bottles periodically throughout the night. Foster parents are able to witness the transition from daytime to bedtime, and even peek into their stalls to wish the elephants a good night. 

Colorful blankets hanging up to dry at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi Kenya
The iconic colorful blankets to keep the little elephants warm on cool nights in Nairobi.

Private Visit: Afternoon – 3pm-4pm
Of the three opportunities to visit the elephant orphanage, this is the most exclusive and expensive. For Lance and I it was the only option available during the time of our visit, in June 2021. At that time Sheldrick was still limiting the number of guests on site. More so than the other options, these private visits must be booked far in advance. In fact, we set our date at least a year before visiting, and even then, nearly missed our window. This visit is limited to a small group, consisting of no more than 8 guests, and requires a $900 USD donation to Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Unlike the other visits, we were able to enjoy quality time with just us and the elephants. At 3pm each day the orphans return to the same location where they receive their midday bottles, for an afternoon refill. After they slurp down their entire bottle, their attention quickly turns to the mud wallow. During the heat of the afternoon this is a perfect time to have an unrestricted view of the babies as they cool off and cake themselves in a fresh coat of mud. After enjoying the community mud bath for about 30 minutes, guests are then provided a tour of the property to see where the elephants sleep each night. This includes meeting Max the adult black rhino. He was rescued when he was just three months old from Nairobi National Park. The caretakers at Sheldrick quickly realized that he was completely blind, and even following multiple eye surgeries he was unable to regain his vision. Considering his condition Sheldrick has committed to providing him care for the rest of his life. Our private visit to see Sheldrick’s incredible work firsthand was unforgettable, and almost seemed to be over in the blink of an eye.  

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust staff with green jacket standing by the black rhino
Sheldrick Wildlife Trust caretakers calling over Maxwell the black rhino.

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Impact

Daphne Sheldrick founded the trust in memory of her late husband and dedicated her lifetime to wildlife and conservation. She was the first person to perfect the milk formula and husbandry needed to successfully raise milk-dependent elephant and rhino calves. Through her innovation the orphans’ project has become the heart of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and a global force for wildlife conservation. With over 160 once orphaned elephants now living natural lives in the wilds of Kenya, her success is unmatched!

Blind black rhino at Sheldrick wildlife trust elephant orphanage
Maxwell the black rhino, who is completely blind in both eyes, at the elephant orphanage.

Caring for growing elephants is a round the clock commitment. Even following their graduation from the nursery unit in Nairobi, three-year-old calves are transferred to one of Sheldrick’s three reintegration units for their next step of rewilding. Based in Tsavo East National Park and Kibwezi Forest, these units have the space the orphans need to return to the wild. Most importantly they are in areas home to wild elephant herds! There the orphaned elephants are gradually weaned and learn the skills to live as wild elephants. Rewilding is a gradual process that can take many years and is individual to each elephant’s needs. The commitment Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has made to rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing their wild orphans is rightfully world famous, and the aspiration of many conservation organizations.

Empty elephant orphan stalls at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Evening stalls for the larger elephant orphans at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

How to Support Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is an organization that has earned my highest praises and support. The impact they have made over the course of four decades has completely shifted Kenya’s protection of their precious wildlife. Everything from their skilled team members to the properties they manage as eco-lodges and rewilding sites, Sheldrick exceeds all expectations as a conservation organization. To support their work, please consider adopting one of their orphans for yourself or as a gift. These digital adoptions include a personalized adoption certificate, monthly email updates and watercolors, and exclusive access to keeper diaries. Adopting an orphan costs just $50 USD each year, and is a great way to support Sheldrick Wildlife Trust while staying connected with their unrivaled mission.

Man standing with baby elephants in Nairobi Kenya
Lance delighted over the little elephants at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Ethical Elephant Encounters in Kenya

Obviously the most ethical elephant encounter in Kenya is observing them in the wild. The country is famous for their elephant herds in Amboseli, Masai Mara, and Tsavo. Thankfully Kenyan tourism has not followed the direction of many southern African nations like Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe in offering unethical elephant activities. Many operations in these countries offer cruel elephant back safaris and interactions often mistaken as wholesome and enjoyable for the elephants. Kenya remains free of this elephant exploitation within the tourism industry.

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is not the only ethical elephant encounter in Kenya, about 340 miles (550 km) to the north lies Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. This community owned, grass roots initiative is designed to rescue and release orphaned elephant calves in the surrounding Samburu region. Having begun in 2016, Reteti is entirely local with an elected board from the community that oversees all operations, and only employs caretakers from the community to care for the elephants. They offer daily tours to visitors interested in discovering their work in person. Each group is paired with an elephant caretaker who leads a tour of the grounds, including watching the calves receive their bottles and enjoy playtime in the mud wallow. Visiting Reteti Elephant Sanctuary helps support their mission and strengthens the community by means of positive tourism impact in the region.

Additional Resources for Ethical Wildlife Travels: