A newcomer like me gets knocked down a lot’ … Michael Nichols’ photograph of orphaned elephants in Kenya. Click here to see full image. Photograph: National Geographic Creative/Corbis
Interview by Kate Abbott
These baby elephants have all lost their mothers. They were either killed by ivory poachers, or they fell in wells while trying to get water. The babies are at an orphanage in Nairobi.
When a new one comes in, it’s utterly traumatised: only one in 10 survives.
The most bizarre thing about these orphans is that the older ones take care of the new arrivals. The elephants lying down are just two years old, but they’ve become matriarchs – 20 years too soon.
The one with its foot up is nine months old. His elders are lying there saying: “Hey, you can get on us!” This is exactly how they play in the wild. Being sociable and protective is something elephants do naturally. It tears your heart out.
There are about 50 elephants at the orphanage, run by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and they have qualified keepers, men from local villages.
It’s one of the most dangerous professions on Earth, yet the Sheldrick keepers never strike the animals – unlike in zoos where control is done by force, with electric shocks, sharp objects or water deprivation.
The keepers rarely let strangers in because it’s a pain in the ass protecting them. A newcomer like me gets knocked down a lot. I wanted the animals to quit paying attention to me, so I could focus on my photographs instead of just trying to stay upright.
By the time I took this, I’d been there three weeks, and the elephants knew me.