Baby animals

Dinner time! Comfort blanket gets baby elephants to feed

March 26, 2012 at 3:01 PM ET

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Does this trunk go with this rug? We think it's a positively delicious combination.

Conservation just got a little cuter! Check out these photos of orphaned baby elephants feeding at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. The calves are fed from behind a blanket  – a helpful trick that keepers use to get the babies to eat.

“Infant elephants are reluctant feeders,” Dr. Daphne Sheldrick told TODAY via e-mail, adding that it’s essential that the baby’s trunk feels like it’s up against the body of the mother. “[A] baby would rest the tip of its trunk against the mother’s body, and suckle using the mouth … how the trunk feels is important.”

It is for Sheldrick’s late husband that the trust is named, although it was her own work with animals in Kenya for which she was awarded a knighthood in 2006. 

Hanging a blanket in the proper position is far from the only challenge keepers face when working with orphaned elephants, Sheldrick explained. “Infant elephants would suckle their mother little and often, so newborns are fed on demand in the nursery… because it is essential to get at least 20 pints of milk down in a 24-hour period to sustain the condition of the calf. If they do not ingest milk in sufficient quantity, they lose condition rapidly, and can die within a few days.”

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Like human children, baby elephants love to play. Gooooaaaal!

Elephants are milk-dependent for the first three years of their lives, but older babies present a whole different challenge: a deep mistrust of humans. Sheldrick said that the established orphans actually assist in helping older, wilder babies calm down and take milk from handheld bottles as quickly as possible.

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Angela Sheldrick, executive director of The David Sheldrick Trust, gets close and cuddly with one of the orphans.

There are currently 50 keeper- and milk-dependent babies in the trust’s care, spread out over three parks. Although you cannot physically assist in the feeding of the orphaned elephants (bummer, we know), you can become a foster parent to a nursery elephant, which enables you to keep up with “your” elephant through e-mail, follow the latest news from the parks in the Keepers’ Diary, receive updated images of the orphans, and get a watercolor painting by Sheldrick’s daughter Angela, who has been the executive director of the trust for the past 10 years.

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Can you dig these conservation efforts? We sure can!

Plus, if you’re a foster parent and find yourself in the area, you can watch the infant elephants getting their evening feeding and being put to bed at 5 p.m. every night. If only we could get in to read them a bedtime story!

If you just can’t get enough of Sheldrick and these amazing animals, keep an eye out for her autobiography, “Love, Life and Elephant:, An African Love Story,” hitting shelves in the U.S. May 8. A biopic starring Nicole Kidman is already in the works.