The Elephant Orphanage and Camp Phoenix: Elephants Back to the Wild
A Guest Blog by Dr. Richard Hiles
Today, we’re delighted to welcome a guest to the DSWF blog. Dr. Richard Hiles is a retired NHS GP and has made many visits to Africa over the course of the last 50 years, including working a sabbatical in Botswana. More recently, Richard has made several extended trips to Zambia, where he witnessed the commendable efforts being made to turn around the fortunes of Zambia’s wonderful National Parks and protect its wildlife – including work and projects directly supported by DSWF.
Zambia is a real frontline for DSWF’s vital work. We have operations and programmes in place that echo our three core pillars – fight, protect, and engage. With your help, rangers supported by DSWF have patrolled a staggering 20,000km in the last six months, protecting fragile ecosystems and endangered species. They’ve also made 35 arrests and seized 12 illegal firearms, as well as 212kg of bushmeat and fish, fighting the illegal wildlife trade. But we’ve also facilitated 50 teachers from 25 different schools to lead conservation club activities. Then there’s the 194 children from ten further schools that have taken part in Discovery Days at the Wildlife Discovery Centre, built with support from DSWF in Lusaka National Park – with transport provided and covered by a DSWF funded bus.
Richard has been a stringent supporter of our work over the last fifteen years, and we’re thrilled to hear his report from the field, which you can read below.
An Elephant Orphanage – the DSWF Difference
In November, I was returning to Zambia – and inspired by articles about Lusaka’s new elephant orphanage, and Kafue National Park’s elephant rehabilitation centre, ‘Camp Phoenix’, featured in DSWF’s ‘Wildlife Matters’ magazine, I decided to pay a visit. I am grateful to DSWF for providing contacts to facilitate that.
The ‘nuts and bolts’ of the two centres are covered in issue 59 of the DSWF publication. Both centres are run with support and funding from DSWF. I had previously visited the old elephant orphanage at Lilayi and was curious to see what the new facility offered. As a long-standing member of DSWF, it was of interest to see how much impact membership subscriptions have, and where some of the resources end up.
I have witnessed very dubious elephant orphanages in Sri Lanka and Thailand, where there was very little evidence of rehabilitation into the wild; the prime objective seeming to be as a tourist attraction. I have also visited an elephant orphanage project in Botswana, which was less exploitative, but still involved the attraction of elephant rides for tourists in order to fund itself. I was interested to see how the projects in Zambia would compare to these benchmarks.
To raise an elephant orphan and rehabilitate it is a big commitment of resources for one animal, especially when there are so many demands on funding for conservation projects around the world. I wondered if I would feel the orphanage to be a good use of precious funds.
Once in Lusaka, I contacted Emma Mweene at the Elephant orphanage and Discovery Centre. They are now situated in Lusaka National Park on the southern city outskirts, having moved from the old site at Lilayi. She hosted my visit, and it would not be possible to find someone more suited to that role. She embodies enthusiasm and positivity for the project. She is the antidote to any cynicism! I was in fact the only international tourist visiting that day. My fellow visitors were Lusaka residents coming to see the baby elephants being bottle fed, a party of delightful, excited and well-behaved schoolchildren, and twin sisters studying environment/conservation at university. There were also two government wildlife department officials who came in for Emma’s charm offensive!
The stars of the show were indeed the elephants! They were engaging, entertaining, adorable, and a complete joy, other than the reason why they were there. Oliver Munyama of Game Rangers International – the organisation supported by DSWF, along with Emma, were on hand to give the back stories which had brought each orphan to need to be rescued. Oliver is knowledgeable, professional and undoubtably committed to his job.
The elephant orphans go out in the bush accompanied by their ‘minders’. This team of dedicated minders are on hand 24 hours a day and a strong bond develops. The elephants are brought to their ‘boma’ for feeding time and as a secure place at night. Otherwise, they have escorted access to the bush of the surrounding Lusaka national park. They quickly learn the routine for feeding time and charge into the boma with great enthusiasm, before playing with each other in the mud. Visitors have a good view from the viewing platform, with visits and observation limited to certain periods; after all these elephants are destined for freedom in the wild and must not be over exposed to people, who may in future be a threat to them. The elephants may be the attraction that pulls in visitors, but their welfare is clearly paramount.
Community Engagement and Education
The opportunity is then seized in the discovery centre for some wildlife and conservation education! There are a lot of interactive exhibits to suit any age group. Everything is well thought out to engage visitors, particularly children. There are giant colourful wildlife murals (artistry fortuitously pertinent to DSWF!). There are interactive games and displays, bones, teeth, snakeskins and other animal artefacts. Separate from the main educational area are smaller rondavels (traditional style round huts), each with their own conservation theme. The school group were all settled at one end of the main thatched building being taught by volunteers, raising their hands enthusiastically and competitively to answer questions.
For the population of Lusaka, this may be their first and only elephant encounter. In a country where rural poverty threatens elephants directly and their habitats are increasingly encroached on, it can only be the local desire to conserve wildlife that will ensure their future survival. It is a battle for hearts and minds, and the new elephant orphanage can be seen as the elephants’ champion. The orphans may be a costly project to maintain (5 dollars a day per orphan to feed) but they are ambassadors of their species, winning the affection of local Zambians who, if not now, will be voters who may then drive a political will to conserve wildlife. And if the elephants are ambassadors, the orphanage is an accessible flagship for conservation at a local level. I am proud to have been a small part of that by supporting DSWF.
If the orphanage is the conservation flagship for Lusaka, then Camp Phoenix is the flagship in the Kafue National Park for Zambians who live in close proximity to it and its wild elephants. This is arguably even more important. The threat to elephants is from poaching and human encroachment into their habitat. Destruction of the game management areas abutting the National Park is rife, with deforestation for charcoal production and agriculture in areas that are theoretically protected as a buffer zone between people and the National Parks. This is the frontline of elephant conservation and the battle for hearts and minds is vital here.
At camp Phoenix I met Tim and his team, who took me up to the massive boma (enclosure) where I joined a teenage school group to await the arrival of the older elephant orphans. This group of elephants were being prepared for life in the wild. The excitement of this orphan subadult herd returning to the boma was obvious. The younger ones still receive a bottle of milk, but they take it and feed themselves. They raced to be first to get their milk! It is a mark of success that the first and oldest of these orphaned elephants are living independently in Kafue National Park, after choosing not to return to their boma (indeed it is unclear how you would make an elephant do something it doesn’t want to do anyway!). Camp Phoenix is the elephant secondary school to Lusaka’s kindergarten!
Whilst waiting for the elephants to return to the boma, the teenage student group were being… well, teenagers! The arrival of the elephants changed that in an instant! Their attention was immediately commanded by the incoming elephant adolescents and their antics. Their human audience strained for a better view, enthralled as the young elephants entertained them. These teenagers were from surrounding villages and would have heard stories of elephants eating crops and attacking villagers. If they had seen an elephant before, it would be likely to have been as a threat in a human wildlife conflict situation. Camp Phoenix offers an entirely different and positive experience, with an opportunity to be enthused towards conserving these magnificent beasts and their environment.
From my perspective, I was enchanted by the baby elephants and their behaviour, but I equally enjoyed people watching. The groups of excited schoolchildren gave me hope that from now on, they’ll share my passion for these magnificent creatures. Their passion is so much more important than mine because they are the elephants’ neighbours and amongst them are the future guardians of these majestic animals, their habitat, and all other associated wildlife. I saw the evidence of that at the orphanage, when I met the twin sisters studying environment and conservation in Lusaka, and with inspiring staff at the orphanage like impassioned Emma and informative Oliver. I am confident more will follow the same path.
Proof of Concept
The success of these twin projects is evidenced by one of the earliest rescued orphans, Chamilandu. She was orphaned by poachers at one and a half years old in South Luangwa National Park in 2007 and rescued to the old elephant orphanage, at Lilayi, just outside Lusaka. Once she had grown up, she was looked after at Camp Phoenix in Kafue National Park, along with Camp Phoenix’s herd of adolescents. She integrated with local wild elephants, fell for the charms of one of the local bulls, and three and a half years ago, returned to the adolescent herd in the Camp Phoenix boma to give birth. That baby was named Mutaanzi David (in a mark of respect for David Shepherd) and is doing well, now free roaming with his mother and father. He enjoys the distinctions of being the first calf born to a Zambian orphaned elephant, being a ‘proof of concept’ for these conservation projects. And for the donors who sponsored him, the DSWF funding and the resources of GRI, he is a ‘buy one get one free’ in elephant form!
It has clearly involved considerable expense to rescue, raise, rehabilitate, and release a handful of elephants each year, but these twin facilities achieve so much more than that. It is reassuring for those who, like me, contribute to DSWF to see projects like this in action.
You can find out more about DSWF’s elephant legacy here, and more about our work here. We can only do this life-changing and species-saving work with your help. Why not adopt an elephant today, or donate directly to DSWF supported projects which support wildlife and communities in Zambia.