Elephant babies Zuli and Kaia play at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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Elephants Helping Elephants

More Than an Adorable Duo

Zuli and Kaia, the elephant babies born last fall at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, have frolicked their way into the hearts of millions of fans around the world with their adorable antics. With all the tumbling and trumpeting going on, you might be surprised to learn that this loveable duo is also helping orphaned elephant babies in Kenya, just by nursing from their mothers!

As part of an innovative new study, Kaia’s mom, Umngani, and Zuli’s mom, Ndulamitsi, are participating in milk expression sessions a few times a week. San Diego Zoo Global scientists then study the nutrients in the mothers’ milk, including fat content, protein levels, and amino acids. They also keep track of how the nutrient composition changes as Zuli and Kaia get older.

Elephant babies Zuli and Kaia play at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Elephant babies Zuli and Kaia play at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. They nurse frequently from their mothers throughout the day, and will continue to until they're 2 or 3 years old.

Sharing the Knowledge

When each milk analysis is completed, we share the findings with our team and partners at an elephant sanctuary in Kenya, where they care for injured, abandoned, and orphaned calves. To get the nutrition a young elephant needs, the calves receive bottle feedings throughout the day. They’re given a blend of milk formula and supplements, customized to each individual’s health needs.

Cutting-edge technology allows us to exchange information with the team in Kenya in real time, allowing them to update formula blends and customize nutrition recipes between bottle feedings, if necessary.

Young elephants get a bottle feeding at the elephant sanctuary in Kenya

Young elephants get one of many daily bottle feedings at the elephant sanctuary in Kenya. Calves arrive stressed and sick, so it's important that they get the nutrition they need to heal.

The Importance of Good Nutrition

The team at the sanctuary provides world-class care for their young elephant residents, who often arrive after seeing their families killed by poachers. The calves are traumatized, dehydrated, and sometimes sick. If the calf’s situation is dire enough, a young elephant will be life-flighted to the facility by helicopter. Young elephants can’t survive without the protection and care of their mothers.

Because calves arrive stressed and ill, it’s vital that they get as much nutrition as possible from their bottle feedings, starting immediately. It’s important that the milk formula is as close to the “real thing” as possible so the calves can heal and thrive.

Two pairs of elephant babies

LEFT: Zuli and Kaia nuzzle at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. RIGHT: Orphaned elephant babies do the same at the elephant sanctuary in Kenya.

Elephant Sanctuary

Each new arrival to the sanctuary is assessed by a veterinarian. Injuries and illnesses are treated and a caretaker watches over newcomers around the clock. Once the new elephants settle in, they join the little herd already being cared for at the one-of-a-kind facility. When they’ve grown healthy and strong, and can survive without care, the calves are released into wild herds in areas protected by anti-poaching patrols.

African elephant populations are threatened by poaching and habitat loss, and the species is considered vulnerable to extinction. Every calf that the sanctuary staff can rehabilitate and re-wild is an important success. Watch the team in action, and know that these calves get a second chance because of friends like you.