Voluntouring Like Angelina
I adopted an infant from Kenya yesterday. It was sort of a spontaneous thing. He’s five months old and his name is Maalim. He was born premature and he landed in an orphanage when he was just two days old after his mother abandoned him in Tsavo National Park. Like any new parent, I’m totally obsessed.
But the thing is, I may never actually see Maalim again. He’s a baby black-horned rhino and he lives at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Orphanage in Nairobi, a sanctuary founded and run by Dame Daphne Sheldrick (who you may have seen in a 60 Minutes profile by Morley Safir a couple of years ago). Maalim is absolutely doted on at the center, which makes me happy. I’m counting myself as one of the legions of Americans engaging in foreign adoptions. Okay, not really. But I am one of the many looking for ways to help local causes while traveling.
Thanks to voluntourism, or whatever you want to call it, a lot of us are feeling philanthropic these days — whether it’s because the financial crisis is causing us to turn inward and re-prioritize how we spend money, or we finally feel guilty shelling out for fabulous travel experiences while ignoring the problems and challenges in the places we’re visiting — poverty, disease, threats to wildlife, environmental crises. Many tour operators are amping up their philanthropic trip offerings these days, too, including Micato Safaris, the company that brought me to Kenya and the Sheldrick orphanage.
Dame Daphne has been rescuing animals for 32 years; the majority are baby elephants, but she’s also fostered black rhinos, zebras, warthogs, antelopes — a veritable safari’s worth of refugees. When I was at the Sheldrick Orphanage, I was lucky enough to meet Dame Daphne, and that’s when I learned about the threats to wildlife in Kenya and about the unique challenges for orphans.
“The most important thing to an elephant is having a family,” said Dame Daphne, explaining that when they’re orphaned, they quickly find a foster mother in their handler, and then eventually, they’re released back into the wild. Dame Daphne said she has more orphans living with her now than ever before, the two main culprits being an influx of poachers to feed the Chinese appetite for ivory and other animal parts, and the desertification of Africa due to global warming.
Among the Sheldrick charges is Maalim. “Maalim likes to walk the line so people will pet him,” she had told me. It’s very rare to see a black rhino in the wild (in Kenya, they’re only found in one park, the Maasai Mara), and even rarer to get an up-close look. So I rushed over to check out Maalim.
First of all, he’s tiny, secondly, he already knows he’s a big deal. He was walking the line with all the panache of a celebrity working the red carpet. He walks slowly, accepting strokes from the audience, and seemingly pausing for photo opps. He had such star quality that when I finally made my way to the exit of the Sheldrick orphanage and passed by the “adoption” table, I couldn’t resist.
For $50, I took home a photo of Maalim and the privilege of reading online updates about his progress written by his handlers on the Sheldrick website. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he grows and thrives. Since I’ve left, I keep peeking at his photo excitedly, and it may sound ridiculous, but I do feel like a proud new parent.
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