How to Save a Baby Elephant

Students will be riveted by the moving story of Ishanga, a baby elephant whose mother was killed by poachers. We’ve paired the text with an article about how drone technology could help put an end to poaching. (930L)

By Justin O'Neill
From the May / June 2017 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will synthesize information from two texts about poaching and the ways people are helping animals affected by it.

Lexile: Text
Guided Reading Level: Text
DRA Level: Text
Topics: Animals,

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More About the Story


synthesizing, vocabulary, close reading, author’s craft, key details, text evidence, inference, personification, cause and effect, tone, problem and solution, explanatory writing

Complexity Factors


“How to Save a Baby Elephant” tells the story of an orphaned baby elephant that was rescued by a dedicated team of conservationists. “Can Drones Stop Animal Killers?” explains how drone technology could be an effective tool in stopping poachers. Together, the feature explores problems of and solutions to poaching.


The first text is mainly narrative, with informational passages woven throughout. The second contains both problem-and-solution and cause-and-effect structures.


The articles include challenging academic and domain-specific vocabulary (e.g. guzzled, endangered, conservationists), as well as personification.

Knowledge Demands 

Familiarity with issues concerning endangered animals will be helpful.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Explore Text Features / Set a Purpose for Reading (10 minutes)

  • As a class, look at page 21. Ask: What questions does this page make you ask yourself? (Answers might include: “Why was the elephant alone and starving?” and “How did people save her?”)
  • Call on a student to read aloud the Up Close box on page 22 for the class. Write the word poaching on the board and ask students if anyone can define it. Then invite them to predict how poaching affected the baby elephant in the article.

Introduce Vocabulary (10 minutes)

  • Distribute the vocabulary activity to introduce challenging terms in the text. 
  • Highlighted terms: extended family, illegally, airstrip, frantically, intensively, dormitories, mingles, conservationists

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes, activity sheet online)

Read the articles as a class. Then put students in groups to answer the close-reading questions.

Discuss the critical-thinking question as a class.

“How to Save a Baby Elephant”

Close-Reading Questions

  • Reread the first sentence of the article. Why do you think author Justin O’Neill chose to begin this way? (author’s craft) The author likely wanted to hook the reader’s attention. By describing the baby elephant as “scared, starving, and struggling to breathe,” O’Neill makes you want to know how she ended up in this situation and what happens to her.
  • According to the first section of the article, what are poachers? What role did they likely play in putting the baby elephant in danger? (key details) Poachers are people who hunt and kill wild animals illegally. Poachers likely killed the baby’s mother, whose milk the baby needed to survive. Not even other elephants could help her, so she was left on her own without any food or protection.
  • Reread the section “Brave Rescuers.” In what way were the park rangers “brave”? (text evidence) When a lion suddenly attacked the baby elephant, the park rangers did not run away; instead, they fired gunshots to frighten the lion. And even though hungry lions continued to prowl nearby, the rangers bravely stayed by the baby’s side and planned how to get her to safety.
  • Based on the section “Calm Voices,” what can you infer about the workers at the David Sheldrick Trust? Use details from the section in your answer. (inference) You can infer that workers at the Trust care deeply about helping elephants. The author explains that they worked “frantically” and “intensively” to save the baby’s life, and treated her with “old-fashioned loving care” in addition to giving her medicine.
  • In the section “No Longer Alone,” how does the author make elephants seem similar to humans? Why do you think he does this? (personification) The author describes the elephants’ actions in human-like ways. For example, he writes that the other elephants gave Ishanga “a tour,” showing her their “dining area” and the field where they “play soccer.” He likely does this to help readers relate to elephants and understand that they are highly intelligent creatures.

"Can Drones Stop Animal Killers?"

Close-Reading Questions

  • According to the section “Ruthless Criminals,” how is poaching affecting African elephant and rhino species? (cause and effect) Poaching is causing African elephant and rhino populations to shrink, putting these species in danger of going extinct in the next 10 years.
  • In the first two sections, what is author Kristin Lewis’s tone, or attitude, toward poachers? (tone) Lewis is angered and disgusted by poachers. She describes them as “ruthless” and “some of the most vicious criminals in the world.”
  • Reread the last paragraph of “Ruthless Criminals” and the first paragraph of “Fighting Back.” What is one major challenge to catching poachers, and how do drones help overcome it? (problem and solution) Poachers are very difficult to find, especially at night. Drones have high-tech cameras that can spot poachers even in the dark, so that teams of park rangers can rush over and stop them before they strike.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • According to both articles, what is the main reason poachers kill elephants and rhinos? Why does this make poachers hard to stop? (synthesizing) Poachers kill these animals because they can make thousands of dollars selling elephant tusks and rhino horns, which are used to make items like jewelry, statues, and health remedies. Since tusks and horns are so valuable, poachers will do almost anything to get them—including breaking the law and hurting people who try to stop them.
  • How might drones have helped Ishanga if they had been flying where she lived? (synthesizing) Answers will vary. Students might say that drones could have helped park rangers detect and catch poachers before they killed Ishanga’s mother. They might also say that drones might have led rangers to the orphaned baby sooner, before she was close to death.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Synthesizing

  • Distribute our synthesizing activity. It will help students prepare to respond to the writing prompt on page 25.

From the Storyworks Archives:

"How to Save Two Dolphins" is a Storyworks favorite about a man who uses filmmaking to help dolphins. Distribute it to advanced readers and ask them to write a short essay comparing the problems dolphins face with the problems elephants and rhinos face.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Put students in pairs to read the lower-Lexile articles aloud. Then have each student tackle half of the prompt: One should write about why poachers must be stopped, and the other about what is being done to help animals.

For Advanced Readers

Have students read How to Save Two Dolphins from the November/December 2015 issue of Storyworks. Ask them to write a short essay comparing the problems dolphins face with the ones elephants and rhinos face.

For ELL Students

In addition to the bolded vocabulary words, many words in the articles may be challenging for ELLs. Have them choose 10 that are new to them, and go over their meanings together.

For Small Groups

Split students into groups of three to do a second read of the articles. Then have them create a poster warning people not to buy products made of ivory or rhino horns, using details from both texts to explain why.