Known for elephant & rhino rescue, but contributions were much bigger than that
NAIROBI, Kenya––The facts of the life of the late Daphne Sheldrick, who died at age 83 on April 12, 2018 after a long battle with breast cancer, are much more easily summarized than her legacy to wildlife, elephants in particular, and to the nation of Kenya, whose economic success relative to most of the rest of Africa comes largely from her influence.
Wildlife tourism currently fetches about 14% of the Kenyan gross domestic product, employing about 10% of all Kenyans who hold wage-producing or salaried jobs.
While many Kenyans have contributed to this success story, accomplished in arid habitat much of which is unsuited to agriculture, and with limited other natural resources, Daphne Sheldrick in many respects showed the way, especially in showing how avoiding exploiting wildlife through trophy hunting can become much more profitable than breeding animals to be shot.
From Daphne Jenkins to Daphne Woodley
Born Daphne Jenkins in 1934, on a farm in the Kenyan highlands, she attended Nakuru Primary School and Kenya High School in Nairobi. Among her friends, in her early teens, brought together by their love of animals, was Martine Colette, the daughter of a Belgian diplomat. Leaving Kenya in her later teens, Colette went on to found the Wildlife Waystation sanctuary in Little Tujunga Canyon, east of Los Angeles, in 1973.
Daphne, meanwhile, had long since dedicated her life to looking after animals, having declined the opportunity to attend university in favor of marriage to Bill Woodley in 1953. Woodley, who shot 90 elephants for ivory in Mozambique before joining the Tsavo National Park ranger staff at age 19 in 1948, spent the next 44 years of his life battling ivory poachers and Mau Mau rebels, for which he won the British Military Cross. He died from a sudden stroke in 1995.
Daphne and Woodley had a daughter together, Gillian, but––though Daphne and Bill remained close friends to the end of Woodley’s life––the marriage lasted less than two years.
Woodley and his second wife, Ruth, had a son, Bongo Woodley, who has also had a long and distinguished career in various capacities with the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Daphne, meanwhile, in 1955 remarried to David Sheldrick.
Fifteen years her elder, the Egyptian-born David Sheldrick had grown up in Kenya as the son of a coffee planter. He fought with the King’s African Rifles in Abyssinia and Burma during World War II, rising to the rank of major.
After his military service, David Sheldrick in 1948 became the founding warden of Tsavo National Park in Kenya. More than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., Tsavo is divided for administrative purposes into Tsavo West and Tsavo East.
While David Sheldrick fought poachers, mostly with Bill Woodley as his top ranger, built nearly 1,000 miles of road to facilitate tourism and park management, and struggled to train a professional park ranger corps, Daphne took charge of raising young animals orphaned by poaching, drought, predation and––inevitably––roadkills.
The Sheldricks continued to manage Tsavo East National Park together after Kenya won independence from Great Britain in 1963, but were transferred to Nairobi National Park in 1976.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Made director of planning for the entire Kenyan National Park system, David Sheldrick died from a heart attack barely six months later. Abruptly widowed, Daphne Sheldrick was allowed to live on with her daughters Gillian, 13, and Angela, 3, in their small home in a corner of Nairobi National Park.
Forming the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in her late husband’s memory, Daphne Sheldrick continued to rehabilitate orphaned wildlife, with the help of both daughters.
Gillian, also known as Jill, has helped at the wildlife orphanage practically all of her life. Angela is now the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust chief executive.
Assist from Bill Jordan
The renowned British wildlife veterinarian Bill Jordan in 1987 introduced a fundraising symbolic adoption scheme for animals treated by the Sheldrick Trust.
This was managed by the British-based charity Care for the Wild, which Jordan founded in 1984, but ended about 18 years later, coinciding with Jordan’s departure from Care for the Wild.
By that time the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust had developed considerable fundraising capacity in its own right. The elephant and rhino orphanage is today a major Nairobi tourist attraction.
Daphne Sheldrick rarely traveled, though she ventured to Britain to accept Mistress of the British Empire and Dame of the British Empire awards from Queen Elizabeth II in 1989 and 2006. She produced five books, The Orphans of Tsavo (1966), Animal Kingdom: The Story of Tsavo (1973), My Four-footed Family (1979), An Elephant Called Eleanor (1980), and Love, Life, & Elephants (2012), and was featured in a variety of documentary films.
Her enduring influence, however, was achieved mostly through the personal impressions she made on others. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, banned elephant trophy hunting in 1973 and banned trophy hunting entirely in 1977 in part at Daphne Sheldrick’s request. His successor, Daniel arap Moi, president from 1978 to 2003, kept the trophy hunting bans in place despite intensive pressure from landowners envisioning profits from operating hunting ranches, pro-hunting organizations including the Africa Wildlife Foundation and Safari Club International, and the U.S. government, via U.S. Aid for International Development.
Encouraged the next generation
Repeated efforts to reopen trophy hunting in Kenya since 2003 have been blocked chiefly by community organizing, led by the indigenous Kenyan organizations Youth for Conservation and Africa Network for Animal Welfare.
Both organizations were founded by Josphat Ngonyo, who in 1996 left a brief career teaching school to do humane education and administrative work for the David Sheldrick Trust.
Youth for Conservation, initially focused on organizing volunteers to do snare removal sweeps in the Kenyan national parks, debuted in 1999 from donated office space at the Sheldrick wildlife orphanage.
Ngonyo then left Youth for Conservation under the direction of Steve Itela in 2005 to form the Africa Network for Animal Welfare, for which Itela is now director of partnership development.
“Warm heart & was our mentor”
Recalled Ngonyo, “If there is anyone I ever knew who was unreservedly and single-mindedly committed to the animal cause, with a big heart full love for animals and people, who was selfless, with a magnetic personality, that one person was Daphne, who inspired my conservation and animal welfare interests.”
Agreed Itela, “Daphne had a warm heart and was our mentor. She stood up when called to, and we were looking up to her to speak out to our government over the infrastructure projects now planned in some of our protected areas. Her contribution and efforts to wildlife conservation is comparable to none. She inspired me and we had wonderful conversations whenever an opportunity presented itself.”
“Trumpeting & celebrating”
Paula Kahumbu, until recently executive director of Wildlife Direct, founded by former Kenya Wildlife Service director Richard Leakey, recalled Daphne Sheldrick as “A true leader whose shoulders we have all stood upon in the fight for the rights of our wild animals. All the elephants are trumpeting and celebrating her long and extraordinary life,” Kahumbu posted to Facebook. “Her legacy will live on through the millions of us who have been touched, moved and inspired by your great work.”
Yet another of Daphne Sheldrick’s proteges was the ivory trade researcher Esmond Bradley Martin, an American expatriate who lived nearby, and became interested in elephant conservation through her.
Influential in India, too
Daphne Sheldrick’s personal influence extended across the Arabian Sea to India, as well. Among the several Indian elephant advocates who served internships at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Orphanage was Azam Siddiqui, who studied orphan elephant care in November 2003.
Siddiqui has subsequently had a leading role in ending elephant polo in India and in efforts to prevent elephant/train collisions.
“I was also privileged to be allowed to go on a day long de-snaring drive along with Kenya Wildlife Service rangers,” Siddiqui recalled, an opportunity usually not extended to non-Kenyans because of the potential risks involved.
Siddiqui found and removed 30 snares himself, among nearly 15,000 removed by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Youth for Conservation volunteers that year alone.
Despite that effort, Daphne Sheldrick estimated that poachers killed as many as 300,000 animals, mostly small species such as dik dik antelope and rock hyrax, but also killed at least 150 elephants and 33 black rhinos.
But poaching, as severe as it was, and remains, was only a symptom, Daphne Sheldrick argued, of misery resulting from misunderstanding the Kenyan drought cycles, worsening as result of global warming.
From the perspective of having lived almost all her life in wild and semi-wild habitat, Daphne Sheldrick explained tirelessly that diebacks of dry forest are part of a repetitive natural cycle, and that keeping abundant free-roaming elephants, in particular, is absolutely and indispensably essential to creating and sustaining the habitat that virtually all other African wildlife needs to survive.
Sheldrick believed the tree damage and other alleged symptoms of overabundant elephants that Zimbabwe, South Africa, and sometimes other nations use as pretext for culling is misrepresented.
The purported damage, according to Sheldrick, is much like the so-called damage done by beavers when they flood a meadow with their dam: it is this very action that diversifies the habitat, opening niches to countless other animals and plants.
David Sheldrick, beginning early in his career as Tsavo National Park warden, traced the drought cycles back by comparing the observations of the first European visitors with detailed analysis of buried root structures.
Trees store water
During the “tree phase” of a drought cycle, he learned, deep-rooting vegetation draws water from the ground and stores it in trunks and root mass, until the springs sink and go dry.
Elephants, who prosper as browsers during the “tree phase” while grazing species diminish, destroy the trees during the drought phase that comes after the springs sink. This returns the tree nutrients to the soil and releases the water held in the roots.
An elephant die-off may occur, as in 1970, if the drought is prolonged. More often, reproduction merely slows. Next comes a cycle of grass growth, benefiting grazing species and their predators.
No “steady state” ecology
Fire can prolong the grass phase for decades by delaying tree growth. If there are no fires for several decades, however, the trees can become dense enough to shade out the grass, as was the case at Tsavo when David Sheldrick arrived. Then only elephants can restore the grazing habitat.
There is no such thing as a steady-state ecology in Tsavo, never was, and never can be, Daphne Sheldrick emphasized. Rather, the “balance of nature” is a climatic see-saw. One cannot “manage” Tsavo therefore, or “manage” the similar habitats occupied by elephants across Africa, except by preventing poaching, maintaining fences and waterholes to keep the animals within the territory humans let them occupy, and then allowing the natural cycles to happen.
Daphne Sheldrick tended to be underappreciated by academic researchers because she spent her life nurturing more than 230 orphaned elephants instead of earning a Ph.D. and a professorship, then formulating opinions on sabbatical visits to Africa between years of sitting in an office or standing in front of a blackboard.
But sometimes academic research memorably confirmed what Daphne Sheldrick had known for years. New Scientist, for example, on June 6, 2007 reported the discovery by Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell of the Stanford University Medical Center in California that elephants are able to communicate across extraordinarily long distances by emitting low-frequency rumblings that generate seismic waves which they “hear” through their feet.
The finding, confirmed through field study in Namibia and Kenya, generated global headlines.
But Daphne Sheldrick was not surprised at all.
Eight years earlier, in 1999, ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton stood with Sheldrick and several other David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Youth for Conservation personnel on a low rise in Tsavo National Park near the home where Daphne and David Sheldrick lived from 1955 to 1976.
While the others focused on the interactions between a towering giraffe and a young female elephant who had just been returned to Tsavo for release, Clifton looked out toward the southeastern horizon and saw a big bull elephant, still several miles away, loping at a rapid, steady, determined pace toward the gathering. The elephant had a huge bright red-orange number painted on his flank.
Came from the Shimba Hills
As the elephant drew closer, Clifton alerted Daphne Sheldrick, who became immediately excited, telling everyone else to stay back and happily running toward the elephant, calling out to him, eventually embracing his trunk. They visited affectionately for some time, and then the elephant turned around, heading back the way he had come, from the distant Shimba Hills, more than 200 miles away.
There the elephant had been numbered because of crop-raiding.
Daphne Sheldrick explained that she had known the numbered elephant since he was young, when she and David Sheldrick still lived at the house in Tsavo. The elephant had walked from the Shimba Hills, eight hours away to the east by car, when he heard that Daphne had returned to Tsavo for a few days, after living for nearly 25 years at Nairobi National Park, another eight hours by car to the west.
Tsavo elephants had “talked up” her arrival
The bull elephant had come specifically to see her, Daphne Sheldrick said, because the several Tsavo elephants who had already seen and greeted her since her arrival had talked it up, using sounds lower than the human threshold for hearing, which the elephants “heard” through their feet.
Scientists did not know that yet, but Daphne Sheldrick had already known it for decades. She had often told people so, yet had not been taken seriously by people with an alphabet soup of letters after their names, denoting academic credentials, none of whom had even a fraction of her experience with elephants in the wild.
“To be a baby elephant must be wonderful,” Daphne Sheldrick famously said, “surrounded by a living family 24 hours a day, touched by the family, cuddled and comforted, feeling a tremendous love and compassion exuded by every family member. I think it must be how it ought to be, in a perfect world.”
No elephant ever said “hello” to the users
Mainstream “conservationists” and scientists imbued with the notion that elephants should be subjected to “sustainable use,” meaning trophy hunting and ivory “harvesting,” to pay for their occupation of habitat, often accused Daphne Sheldrick of “bunny-hugging” and excessively anthropomorphizing elephants, rhinos, and the many other species she protected and rehabilitated.
But it is safe to say that no elephant ever walked 200 miles each way, or even crossed a dirt road, just to say hello to any of the “sustainable users.”
Clifton, as a cynical journalist, and Chris Jordan, the nature photographer son of Care for the Wild founder Bill Jordan, verified with a call to the Shimba National Wildlife Reserve two days later that the numbered elephant had in fact returned there after his visit.
“One of a kind”
Wrote Angela Sheldrick, “I feel blessed to have been able to call her my Mum because she was quite simply ‘one of a kind.’ She was a national treasure and a conservation icon. Her legacy is immeasurable and her passing will reverberate far and wide because the difference she has made for conservation in Kenya is unparalleled.
“She will be sorely missed,” Angela Sheldrick wrote, “but never forgotten, and this is what Daphne drew the most comfort from in her final weeks: knowing that her memory and work would continue with the tiny steps of baby elephants for generations to come.”