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Elephant Orphanage To Open In Tanzania [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

Feb 17, 2016 03:23 PM EST
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Renewed poaching is currently threatening the lives of thousands of African elephants, especially older matriarchs that boast massive ivory tusks that are alluring to hunters. The loss of these still highly reproductive, usually long-lived elder females -- mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers -- is extremely devastating for their rich social communities, leaving their young without protection, care and food. To help babies and juveniles survive this remarkably stressful shock, which researchers say is like what humans suffer with PTSD, two organizations are opening the first elephant orphanage  in Tanzania, Africa.

The facility is expected to be up and running in March, and will help rescue, rehabilitate and eventually release elephants separated from their mothers at a young age. Silent Heroes, founded by veterinarian Hayley Adams, has partnered with the African Wildlife Trust to build the structure and provide the proper medical care young elephants need.

"These animals have just experienced a lot of trauma; they just witnessed their mother being killed. They are dehydrated, disoriented, stressed -- it's a very critical time because they are highly cognitive," Adams told Nature World News, explaining that the first 72 hours following their abandonment are very touch-and-go situations, although it is often difficult for humans to determine exactly how long the elephants have been orphaned.

The plan is this: When a young elephant is found alone, it will be air rescued to the orphanage. The transport and change can be stressful and traumatic, too. Therefore, veterinarians must find a balance between bonding with the orphans and medically stabilizing them. Sadly, however, some of the elephants don't make it and are sensitive enough that they will give up the will to live after suffering such a loss.

"The way I look at it is it is a great opportunity for us to learn, so that we can improve on the way things are done -- there is just so much that isn't known about the proper care of orphans," Adams said.

If rescued successfully, however, orphans will spend between nine and 14 years at the orphanage before being released at Tarangire National Park, a natural or free-range environment in Tanzania. Tight-knit elephant societies are organized around a central matriarch, and young generally remain by their mother's side for a similar time. When it is time to start mating, males are the only ones who wander from their family units. 

Sitting on several hundred acres of savannah grassland, the orphanage is set-up like a nursery: The youngest and most milk and contact dependent animals are kept in stables and given 24-hour care -- feedings every few hours paired with constant contact and supervision. As they get older they are allowed to roam throughout the orphanage more freely, visit the watering hole and naturally form their own social units -- a key part of elephant lifestyles.  

While conserving elephants is the facility's key concern, it will not turn away other animals found suffering, such as rhinos or giraffes. 

"We know there are elephants being poached daily, and people don't always recognize that all these elephants that are being killed have families," Adams said. "We have our work cut out for us, but I am certainly interested in elevating the standard of care for these guys, because we know they go through a lot of emotional trauma." 

Much of the formula given to rescued or orphaned animals is makeshift, so Adams hopes to find an alternative that more closely resembles their mother's milk and the nutrients they need to thrive as they would in their natural habitat.

The orphanage plans to allow a limited amount of tourism, where people can visit the animals and watch them as they grow up. One way to donate to Ivory Orphans is by going to Silent Heroes' Amazon Wish List. It's a good way to get a close look at the orphanage's operations, by purchasing stable blankets, nursing bottles, or other items that shell-shocked young elephants will use. 

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-Follow Samantha on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13

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