Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Rachael Murton the Savior of Elephants

Rachael Murton

As she strides purposefully through an African forest leading a group of six orphaned elephants through the Zambian countryside, perhaps the only hint that Rachael Murton might once have called Essex home is the leopard print Wellingtons she wears to stride through the mud.

Together, the lumbering animals weigh a combined 500 stone, but Chelmsford-born Rachael retains her composure. For these young orphaned elephants, this devoted young British woman is their surrogate mum, and each wants to be first for a cuddle.

Tenderly, these colossal beasts — years from being fully grown — raise their trunks to 33-year-old Rachael's face, seeming to wrap her in an embrace.

A biology graduate who left the UK after university, Rachael has dedicated her life to saving baby elephants left without their real mums by poachers killing indiscriminately for ivory and bush-meat in Zambia.

Not only does she nurse the severely traumatised animals back to health, she is also on 24-hour call to mount dangerous rescue operations to bring abandoned elephants to safety.

'I've always loved animals and I left my white stilettos in Essex,' jokes Rachael, who came to Zambia in 2008 after working on animal conservation projects around the world.

She manages the Lilayi Elephant Nursery, the only orphanage of its kind in southern Africa, for anti-poaching organisation Game Rangers International, which has links to the International Fund For Animal Welfare.

The orphanage, near the capital Lusaka, performs a vital role in a country where ivory poachers who sell tusks to dealers for the Far East market are unlikely to be arrested.

When adult females are killed for their tusks, their babies quickly become emaciated because they need maternal milk to grow until the age of two or three.

Forlorn and confused, they are shunned by their herds because their weak state means they are more likely to attract lions. Without human intervention, orphaned elephants would quickly die.

Rachael, who studied at Royal Holloway College, near Egham, Surrey, is the woman park rangers turn for help, even going up in a microlight on one dramatic rescue when two baby elephants came close to plunging over Victoria Falls.

After completing a biology degree at the University of Royal Holloway, she volunteered at conservation projects in Australia and Alaska before taking part in a rainforest biodiversity study in Cambodia.

It was there, in the aptly named "Elephant Bar", that she met the future CEO of Game Rangers International, Sport Beattie, who would later offer her the job of managing the Elephant Orphanage Project.

Now Rachael rises at 5.30am to give the elephants their first feed at the Lilayi Elephant Nursery just outside the capital Lusaka before she and other keepers lead the youngsters out to the bush where they must be fed every three hours.

Once a month she'll also make the nine-hour trip to the Kafue Release Facility, where all elephants more than three years old are weaned off milk and taught to become more independent before release.

Rachael Murton

"Life is completely different to that in Essex. I intermittently worked in an office environment there to save money for overseas travel and voluntary work, but office work here is completely different since the office is a tent or mud hut," added Rachael. "The weather means that outdoor work is much more pleasant and I spend a lot of my time covered in red mud or elephant dung."

Despite living thousands of miles from friends and family, she believes the project gives her a cause she simply couldn't abandon. "Essex has some lovely countryside and villages, but I have a purpose here that is far more engaging and captivating," Rachael told the Chronicle.

"The project has become a huge part of my life and I do not intend to leave. I usually visit the UK once a year and try to encourage friends and family to visit me in Zambia."

Born in Springfield, Rachael had always loved animals and the outdoors, drawn to rural parts of the county over and above its towns and city.

Until 2012, when the orphanage was opened, she was based in the bush, living without modern conveniences for many months of the year. Her passion to help was fuelled after she found two-year-old female Suni, who was attacked with an axe when her mother was poached. Rachael and her Zambian keepers now dote on the young elephant who had horrific injuries.

To save Suni's limp leg, Game Rangers International commissioned a special metal boot so she can walk. She also has acupuncture.

The Lilayi orphan herd also includes young bull Zambezi, who has an astonishing rescue story. A barman at a safari lodge spotted what he thought was a rather portly guest splashing about in the swimming pool. Looking closer, he realised it was actually a one-month-old baby elephant.

Separated from his mother, he was desperate for water and had tumbled into the pool as he tried to drink.
Once sufficiently recovered, the orphans will be returned to the wild in Zambia's Kafue National Park. In this gigantic wilderness the size of Wales, they are initially kept safe from harm in a controlled area. But eventually they will be free to roam with the herds.

While the international ivory trade continues to kill thousands, it is left to brave animal lovers like Rachael to pick up the pieces. She makes a formidable ally for the elephants.

Poachers are unlikely to be arrested in the African country and when female elephants are killed for their tusks, their babies are unable to fend for themselves, which is what makes the project so vital.

It is one of five conservation projects led by Game Rangers International, which has links to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, founded in 2008 to help Kafue National Park to better manage their natural resources.

To donate to the work carried out by the small charity, go to www.justgiving.com/Game-Rangers-International and for further information, visit www. gamerangersinternational.org

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