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The journey of an orphan elephant

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Established by David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) and Game Rangers International (GRI) in 2008, the Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP) in Zambia works to rescue, rehabilitate and release orphaned elephants who have lost their mothers and families to poachers and the illegal wildlife trade.

DSWF’s very own Supporter Care & Database Executive, Jo Briffitt, and Trusts & Foundations Manager, Lottie Birch, along with our CEO in tow, recently visited GRI in person to reconnect with the team on the ground and those operating at the front line of wildlife conservation. We are excited to share their insights with you into the journey of an orphan elephant – from rescue to release.


GRI’s teams on the ground provide a rapid response to poaching and human-wildlife conflict incidents which leave young and vulnerable elephants alone and abandoned with little chance of survival.

Lottie shares: “It was truly a privilege to meet the incredible keepers who work around the clock to keep the orphans safe. Stepping into the surrogate mother role as soon as they arrive at a rescue scene, keepers comfort the young calves through their transportation to the Elephant Orphanage at Lilayi* and continue to care for them until their release. From sleeping in tents inside the boma, to monitoring the elephants’ health and wellbeing, their dedication and commitment shone through every step of the way. To see how they care for these tiny elephants, as much as we do for our own families, was inspiring, heart-warming and galvanising.”


Once the orphans reach a certain age and have gained sufficient mental and physical strength, they take a seven-hour journey to Kafue National Park to join the release herd. Here behavioural observation studies are carried out by the research team who monitor the elephants’ health and developmental progress. When they are ready, the orphans are able to spend nights alone away from the boma to integrate with wild herds. Tracking collars help to monitor their movements and alert teams if they are spending too much time near neighbouring communities.

Jo explains: “It was fascinating to hear how the team, who were so passionate about conserving the elephants, make full use of the GPS data from the tracking collars and how this facilitates enhanced protection for the elephants – providing vital insights into their behaviour in the wild. This is real conservation, and I am so proud to be a part of it. Simply spending time with the guys on the ground, observing their interactions, care and professionalism with the elephants, and being able to help with day-today tasks helped bring what we do and why it’s so important to light. These are hardworking, diligent and incredible people who are putting wildlife first. Even being able to hold and pick up an elephant collar in my hands, which is unbelievably weighty, helped provide context to the larger environmental protection and robust research work being conducted there.”


The Kafue National Park is vast, spanning an area the size of Wales, and this presents a serious challenge for rangers in providing a constant presence. To ensure that vulnerable wildlife populations remain safe, Specialised Anti-Poaching Units (SAPU) patrol the area by vehicle, air, foot and boat. Two such elephants they are helping to protect are Chamilandu and her calf, Mutaanzi-David, who recently returned to a ‘free-roaming’ lifestyle away from the boma.

Speaking about her first encounter with them, Jo describes: “It was a magical experience to see Chamilandu enjoying life in wild with Mutaanzi-David after her long 15-year journey from orphan to release. Through some sixth sense, she knew we must have arrived that very day as we were quietly unpacking when an excited Moses and Webster (key members of the research and camp management team) rushed over to say that ‘Chamma’ and Tafika, who had not been seen for a while, had wandered into the outskirts of camp. We all dropped our bags and quickly but quietly inched along the boma path with Head Keeper, Lasick, to a safe viewing space to watch them in the distance. Having learnt so much about her through managing DSWF’s Adoptions, to be able to ‘meet’ her and hear more about her journey from her dedicated keepers was truly inspiring.”


Successful conservation requires the support and engagement of local communities. Through its outreach programmes, GRI supports 25 schools, 10 women’s groups and 5 enterprises in the Greater Kafue area. 

“Hosted by the fantastic and charismatic Britius, GRI’s Community Outreach Manager, we received a wonderful welcome to the Ngoma Communities with open arms and a traditional welcome drink”, says Lottie.

“Not only did we get to enjoy the company of the local chief as he welcomed us to his homestead, but we also enjoyed an incredibly special experience with a GRI supported enterprise to learn how the fluffy buns are made and to hear first-hand how this scheme is supplementing their income, opening doors for new opportunities and providing financial literacy to local women’s groups. I am very excited to see how this initiative grows and develops to positively impact more communities around the Kafue National Park.”

*We’re delighted to report that on Tuesday 12th July all six elephant orphans were successfully relocated two their new home in the heart of Lusaka and are now established in their new environment. Read more about this here.

Please help us to continue supporting this vital conservation work by donating today: https://davidshepherd.org/donations/donate/

This article was originally printed in our bi-annual wildlife magazine, Wildlife Matters

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