A Visit to Ithumba: Returning Orphaned Elephants to the Wild

My life was forever changed in 2016 when my husband, Chad, and I first visited the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. 

During this transformative experience at the elephant sanctuary, we witnessed their lifesaving work firsthand. The SWT runs the world’s most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program and is a leading conservation organization. They are dedicated to wildlife protection and the preservation of East African wilderness. Since our initial visit, we’ve been eager to visit all 5 of their sites.

Unfortunately, COVID delayed our return. But finally, in late 2022, we had the chance to visit. This time we brought along my dad, who had never been to Africa. An airline strike didn’t stop us, though it made for an interesting journey. We arrived in Nairobi much later than planned. And upon our arrival, we quickly headed to the SWT Nairobi Nursery Unit, where the keepers were eagerly waiting for us to begin that morning's feeding. 

It was as magical as we remembered. Tens of orphans, ranging from tiny babies to adorable juvenile elephants, gobbled up their morning bottles. After the feeding, we followed the keepers and their small herd into the bush where they observed and guided the elephants. 

The slow pace of elephant living is truly majestic to behold. It was captivating to watch them forage from the bushes with their small but mighty trunks, playfully rough-house with one another, and saunter in the mid-day sun. 

To be in the presence of a baby elephant is incredibly joyful while equally heartbreaking. Their presence at the orphanage is a symbol of their species' struggle to survive and of families torn apart and lost.

We spent that morning photographing the elephants and catching up with the keepers. And we learned that because of the prolonged drought sweeping through Kenya, the nursery had been inundated with elephant orphans. In 2022, they received more orphans than in the last 5 years combined! Which is why they need your support now more than ever.

Shop the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Fine Art Collection to Support Wildlife Rehabilitation Efforts.

A Treasure in the Bush: Ithumba Camp Tsavo

Following a heartwarming yet somber visit with the tiniest of Sheldrick's elephants, we headed into the bush. We boarded a chartered flight to East Ithumba National Park, the most extensive protected wilderness in Kenya. This long-awaited trip brought us to one of the sites where the orphaned elephants 'graduate.' At the reintegration units, the elephants learn about life in the wild until one day, they’re ready to return. 

After a few hours in the air, leaving the city of Nairobi behind and venturing into the arid landscape of pristine wilderness, we landed on the red soil runway. Two safari vehicles greeted us, led by our guide, Let. They helped unload our bags and grocery provisions before heading to our camp. 

At Ithumba Camp Tsavo, an Eco Safari Lodge, we were welcomed by the house staff and were immediately struck by the architecture and design of the camp. Perched atop Ithumba Hill, as if placed delicately by celestial fingers, the camp offers breathtaking views of the Yatta Plateau. The open-air design allowed the breeze to flow through the lodge, keeping it cool and comfortable even on the hottest days. 

Each room was adorned with beautiful artifacts, thoughtfully collected over the years. This made the lodge feel like a private home instead of a wilderness retreat and in fact, it is. The home was conceived, designed, and furnished by Angela Sheldrick, the CEO of SWT and daughter of founder Daphne Sheldrick. It was so apparent that each angle and artifact was carefully curated with love and attention. 

Meticulously integrated into the surrounding landscape, the camp allows you to feel fully immersed in nature for a serene and private experience. And the camp itself isn’t enough to get you packing your bags, all profits go to the Keyna Wildlife Service to support wildlife conservation in Tsavo.

Truly one of the most beautiful properties I had ever seen, our visit was made even more magical when the time came to load into our safari vehicle and visit the elephant sanctuary only a short drive away.

Back to the Wild: The Ithumba Elephant Reintegration Unit

We arrived at the Ithumba Unit’s viewing area and toured the enclosures while the elephants and keepers were out in the bush. The elephants at this sanctuary had all graduated from the Nairobi nursery. When ready, they’re brought to this unit in East Tsavo National Park where they have access to the African wilderness and can explore what it’s like to be truly wild. 

This location in Ithumba is Sheldrick’s most successful reintegration unit. In the vast Tsavo National Park, the elephants have access to terrain untouched by mankind and can experience living in the wild before being released. It has also become a hub for elephants currently living in the wild—a fully protected environment for them to thrive.

Get a sneak peek behind the scenes at the Ithumba Reintegration Unit here.

An Unexpected Reunion: Melia and Her Beautiful Baby 

During our days at Ithumba Camp Tsavo, we ventured to the reintegration unit in the mornings and evenings to join the keepers and orphans. We were lucky to see many wild elephants who visited the orphans.

A special surprise was seeing a former orphan, Melia, who had given birth to a new baby the week prior. It was such a wonder to see a fully rehabilitated elephant bring her wild-born baby back to take comfort in the safety of the unit and visit the keepers. It says so much about the environment that’s created for them and the loving care of the keepers. You can read Melia’s incredible birth story here

In a more personally gratifying moment, I had the wonder of reuniting with Malkia, an orphaned elephant I first had the pleasure of meeting 6 years prior. It was our very first visit to the Nursery.

Her story is moving, to say the least. She was rescued as a tiny calf, after being found next to her mother who had collapsed due to old age and dry conditions. Her mother was later humanely euthanized when it was clear she would not recover. 

From her traumatic beginning, Malkia has come such a long way. Just 6 years before, she was a newly rescued orphan. And now, because of the incredible work of the Sheldrick Trust, her rehabilitation has come full circle.

Along with Malkia, we were reunited with many of the other orphans we had photographed at the Nairobi Nursery when they were much, much smaller. It was wonderful to witness their transformations and to see how many had reintegrated into the Tsavo wild.

A Magical Experience Paves the Way for Future Work With SWT Elephant Sanctuaries

Visiting the Ithumba Reintegration Unit took us to truly ‘wild Africa’. Aside from the keepers and Kenya Wildlife Services, there were no other people for hundreds of miles. In addition to the experience at the elephant sanctuaries, staying in the open-air Ithumba Camp was remarkable. We took in sundowners, watched the sunset on the vast open horizon, and listened to the elephants, leopards, and plethora of wildlife pass by the camp through the night. 

Being in the heart of Africa, where wildlife can roam free, and witnessing the decades of service of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was a soul-changing experience. It was an honor to visit these magical places with Chad and to bring my dad to Africa for the first time. I can't wait to return and document more of our incredible partner's vital work. 

With your help, we can all make a difference for African elephants.



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