With big eyes, this baby elephant enthusiastically climbs on the tired old man lying on the ground.

At just nine months old, he explores the world with all the playful curiosity of an enthusiastic young man.

And the older elephants in the group let the smaller ones patiently crawl on them and show how kind these powerful animals can be. But there is a tragedy behind this extraordinary image.

Instead of growing up with their natural families, these elephants are orphans forced to create their own extraordinary family of survivors.

Wide-eyed with enthusiasm, this baby elephant clambers over a weary elder lying on the ground during playtime at the orphanage
Wide-eyed with enthusiasm, this baby elephant clambers over a weary elder lying on the ground during playtime at the orphanage

Some were separated from their mothers by mistake, but too many were orphaned by predatory ivory poachers.

And these elephants, who lie down to calm the little ones, are only two years old. Since they have no adults in their group, they became the protective mother figures 20 years earlier.

The family of 50 lives in the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. Each of them has a heartbreaking story.

A young woman arrived at a ranch at the age of just seven weeks, roared with grief, and was “desperately looking for a company” after her mother was massacred.

Another was “found standing guard over her dying mother”, another victim of the ivory trade. So it’s no wonder that when elephants are taken to the orphanage, they are so traumatized that only one in ten survives.

In these risky early days, keepers, men from nearby villages, are careful to stay in physical contact with the newcomer at all times and imitate the affection he would have received from his relatives.

The 50-strong family lives at an orphanage run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. Above, a keeper looks after a young elephant

The 50-strong family lives at an orphanage run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. Above, a keeper looks after a young elephant

The emotions of a young elephant are so strong that a different animal keeper has to sleep next to him every night. If not, the orphan becomes too affectionate and begins to cry when her human companion has to be absent from work.

Luckily, there is an easy way to tell if the newcomer is successful. Baby elephants should have thick cheeks like their human counterparts.

Older elephants will benevolently watch over any nervous child. And as soon as this initial shock is overcome, the orphans will play and frolic happily together.

American photographer Michael Nichols, who captured the animals in this moving image, says that the way orphans play is how he has seen elephant families interact in their natural habitats.

Due to the strength of a young elephant’s emotions the keepers change the animal they sleep near each night. If not, the orphan will become too attached and start to grieve when its human companion has to take time off work
Due to the strength of a young elephant’s emotions the keepers change the animal they sleep near each night. If not, the orphan will become too attached and start to grieve when its human companion has to take time off work

After the terrible two years, the orphans are transferred to one of the Trust’s two rehabilitation centers in Tsavo East National Park, where they recognize some of their older playmates from kindergarten.

There, they will slowly begin to reintegrate into the desert, a process that takes years. They go on walks with their animal caretakers until they gain confidence in their independence and receive water and milk until they are ten years old.

One day they’ll leave and they won’t come back. The little orphans who have won against adversity hope to start their own families.

By Vinh