Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ An elephant orphanage in Kenya is seeing an upsurge in orphaned elephants brought there because of the poaching crisis occurring across Africa, the founder said Wednesday.

Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who runs the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park, said Kenya must pass stricter laws to punish those who poach elephants for their ivory tusks. Sheldrick said it would be economic sabotage if Kenya doesn’t prevent poaching deaths, because of the tourism it will lose.

“Unfortunately the demand for ivory in the Far East, particularly China, has pushed the price of ivory up too far,” Sheldrick said as a dozen orphaned elephants bathed in dry mud nearby. For village residents who have little earning potential, the lure of a poaching payday can be tough to resist, she said.

That’s why Kenya must enact “very draconian sentencing” for poaching crimes, so that it’s not worth it for villagers to kill elephants or rhinos, she said. The Kenya Wildlife Service has long urged Kenyan lawmakers to increase the penalty for poaching, but so far the penalties have remained low. Will parliament pass stricter laws? Even Sheldrick is not sure.

“One has to hope. If they don’t Kenya is going to lose their elephants and rhinos,” she said, adding later: “Everyone is pleading with the Kenyan government to enact strict punishments against poachers.”

Thousands of elephants are being killed across Africa every year by poachers who sell ivory tusks to buyers in Asia, where an increasing demand is buying ivory trinkets as a sign of prestige. Conservationists warn that unless the demand is curtailed, poachers will wipe out Africa’s elephants and rhinos, who are killed for their horns.

The Nairobi orphanage takes in young elephants who have become separated from their pack or whose parents have been killed. The orphanage has raised more than 150 elephants, and so far 70 have been released back into the wild. Sheldrick said the orphanage is taking in far more orphans than in years past.

Robert Godec, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, fed bottles of synthetic milk to some of baby elephants on Wednesday, World Environment Day. Godec said policing efforts and prosecutions of poachers must improve and a lowering of demand for ivory in places like Vietnam and China must take place to save the animals.

As Godec mingled among the baby elephants, patting them on the back and feeding them oversized bottles, he told Sheldrick that the orphanage is a place where magic happens. While surrounded by the small giants, he said: “They’re very human in a way.”

“Oh, I’ve been working with them for 50 years now,” she replied. “They’re just like us but better than us.”