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Brave baby elephant risks life to protect dying mother

Mirror logo Mirror 23/02/2017 Laura Connor
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For days, Zongoloni stood guard over her dying mother, chasing off anything that came too close.

Stroking her trunk along her injured mum’s body – the victim of an ivory poacher ’s bullet – the 18-month-old elephant calf refused to leave her side, even as hunger and dehydration threatened her own life.

Had she been left to fend for herself in the wild, Zongoloni would almost certainly have died alongside her mother, whose milk she was still dependent on.

© David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Instead, she is a happy and healthy five-year-old living at one of three Orphans’ Project reintegration centres in Kenya.

The project – led by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which this year celebrates its 40th ­anniversary – is the most successful elephant orphanage in the world.

And now, campaigner and BBC 5 Live presenter Nicky Campbell has written and released a single, inspired by orphaned elephants like Zongoloni, to raise funds to save more of the creatures. 

The radio host, 55, says: “These ­elephant calves have seen terrible things in the wild, literally watched their ­mothers hacked to death in front of them and having their tusks taken away.”

“The DSWT finds them and nurtures them. The team who help them say to me, ‘You know it’s worthwhile when the calf comes in and it’s been screaming all night, screaming for its mother.

“And then gradually they rehabilitate and 10 years later go back into the wild.

“An elephant never forgets. Elephants laugh, cry and play practical jokes on each other, like humans. They are extraordinary animals. But, because of the ivory trade, humans are their hell.”

Despite her horrific start in life, Zongoloni is one of the lucky ones. Her mother had survived for almost a week with a poacher’s bullet in her leg, which had shattered the bone.

Vets treated her but, with the bullet still embedded, they were not optimistic she would recover. Sadly, they were right and she had to be put down.

The elephant’s plight reduced the rescuers to tears. But at least they were able to save Zongoloni. After a 90-minute flight and a life-saving drip, she was taken to the orphanage, where she is now one of 200 calves.

The DSWT rescues and hand-rears milk-dependent orphaned baby elephants with the aim of returning them to the wild when they are fully grown.

With the help of a pioneering milk formula – developed by the charity’s founder, Dame Daphne Sheldrick – hundreds of animals have been saved.

So far, the DSWT has released more than 100 elephants, who have had 24 babies between them, back into the wild. Kenyan-born Dame Daphne and her late husband, David Sheldrick, spent decades raising and rehabilitating wild animals.

After David’s death in 1977, Dame Daphne set up the trust in his memory. But it faces an uphill struggle. Ivory poachers killed 100,000 African elephants between 2011 and 2014 alone, according the most recent study on illegal kills by Colorado State University.

In 2011, roughly one in every 12 African elephants was killed by a poacher.

The demand for ivory, mainly in China and other parts of Asia, has fuelled black-market activity. African elephants are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while Asian elephants are already classed as endangered.

If the poaching continues, Nicky fears his four teenage daughters’ children will grow up in a world where they won’t be able to see elephants in the wild.

He says: “I am really looking forward to a time in the future when their children live on a planet that has elephants in the wild, wandering over hundreds of hundreds of miles, finding watering holes, staying as families and living their beautiful lives.”

“I want them to be around when my grandchildren are old. That is what I am frightened for. When we destroy the natural world, when we destroy ­elephants in the wild, how will we look at ourselves in the mirror?

Photo credit: Andrea Turkalo/Elephant Listening Project Forest Elephants of Africa

“We have to get into a situation where people don’t look at an ivory antique and think it’s beautiful – they have to instead have a visual of a baby elephant guarding her dead mother. That’s what I see when I see ivory – grief and ugliness,” he adds.

“The only time ivory is beautiful is when it’s on the face of an elephant.”

The stories of the other orphaned elephants saved by the DSWT are just as heartbreaking as Zongoloni’s.

Roi’s was rescued three years ago. She was discovered next to the corpse of her mother, who was killed by a poacher’s poisoned spear, desperately stroking her bloodied body with her trunk.

Just a day before, Roi had been photographed feeding from her lively mum, the calf happily scampering beneath her feet at their home in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

Thankfully, Roi’s plight was reported to a local elephant rescue team and the DSWT – one of only three organisations working with orphan elephants in Africa – co-ordinated her relocation to Nairobi National Park.

Roi is now a robust and healthy three-year-old who has had her tusks removed to prevent her from meeting the same fate as her mother.

To mark DSWT’s 40th anniversary, animal lover Nicky, who owns three dogs, has penned an emotional song called Sacred Eyes.

The radio and TV host says: “The lyrics are about the beauty and the love of elephants contrasted with the ultimate parody of art being seen as a carved ivory elephant family being sold in the Middle East.

“It’s celebrating the beauty of elephants in a carving, but it has resulted in the destruction of an elephant family.

“That is the true meaning of parody – it’s a sick parody,” he says.

“We have so much to learn from the animal world. With animals we see unconditional love, a purity of love, which we can see in ourselves.

“But, as Dame Sheldrick said: ‘Elephants are just like us – but better.’”

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