The first 65 years of the life of the world’s first mom to orphaned elephants in her own words
Editors’ note: Daphne Sheldrick, 83, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and of the elephant orphanage the trust operates at the edge of Nairobi National Park, Kenya, died on April 12, 2018, after a long battle against breast cancer.
ANIMALS 24-7 will remember Daphne with a complete obituary, to follow soon.
ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton was honored, meanwhile, to collaborate with her in December 1999 to assemble the following memoir from various of her previous writings.
“I started young, with a duiker antelope”
People often ask me, “When did you first start fostering orphaned animals?”
The answer is that I started young. I was born in Kenya, and grew up on a highland farm. Throughout my childhood, farmhands brought young animals to our home. The first orphan I cared for on my own was a little duiker antelope called Bushy. I was only three, but I spent all my waking hours with him. Eventually he answered the call of the wild, as all wild creatures must. I wept my first tears for a loved one.
My husband, David Sheldrick, was first warden of Tsavo East National Park, an untamed wilderness which is a haven for wildlife. We lived there from the time the park was created in 1948.
Tsavo was established not for its wealth of wildlife, however, but simply because it was a large chunk of country not suitable for either plowing or grazing.
Then, the habitat favored the browsing species, such as elephants and black rhinos, both present in large numbers, as were dik-dik, lesser kuku, and gerenuk. Grazers were few. You couldn’t see anything. An impenetrable wall of bush was broken only by elephant trails.
By fortunate accident, Tsavo held a greater variety of different species than any other park in the world, for there the northern and southern forms of fauna met, doubling the varieties of resident species. There were both Peters’ gazelle and the Grant’s gazelle, both the Somali ostrich and the Masai ostrich, both reticulated giraffes and Masai giraffes.
It was my job at Tsavo to raise and rehabilitate the many orphans, both large and small, left by poachers, predators, and periodic drought. I returned many animals to the wild, including some 24 buffalo calves, some of whom became the original nucleus of the resident Nairobi National Park herd.
I also rehabilitated several zebras, three of whom pioneered the re-establishment of zebra at Shimba Hills National Park; several rhinos, some of whom are back in the wild at Tsavo and Amboseli National Park; most species of antelope; and also civet cats, mongooses, and warthogs.
Many of these animals chose to keep in touch, bringing their young back to meet me and forming an amazing extended family.
Elephants proved most difficult
Elephants proved the most difficult to raise. At first, only those over one year old had any chance of survival. Time after time I devoted myself to the care of sickly orphans, only to see them fade away before my eyes.
I still grieve for Aisha, whom I kept alive for six months, beginning to unravel the many mysteries of raising infant elephants. She arrived at the age of one month. I fed her on a milk substitute in which all of the fat came from coconuts.
I already knew that the fat in cow’s milk is death to an elephant, but I had not yet learned that baby elephants must be fed every three hours, day and night, and must never be left alone. I did not yet know how adversely antibiotics affect baby elephants.
Finally, I allowed Aisha to become too attached to me, so that her health and well-being came to depend on my presence. I always left a competent elephant sitter with Aisha every time I had to be gone for a few weeks, but Aisha simply pined away.
I had loved Aisha as my own child, for when one is mother to a little elephant, the commitment must be total and come straight from the heart.
Older orphaned elephants fared better, beginning with Samson, rescued by David at Aruba in 1954, at about 14 months.
Other orphans joined wild herds at adolescence, but one called Eleanor chose to remain behind. Eleanor was orphaned at Samburu, and for the first year was raised there. At five years old she was sent to Tsavo, where she grew up among the other orphans.
Initially she stayed behind to be with Bukanezi, who came in at one year old. At that time Bukanezi was the youngest elephant I had ever kept alive, pulling him through on cereals and hand-picked greens. Eleanor forsook her freedom in order to help. Each time Bukanezi collapsed, she would support him, holding him upright so that he could be given more glucose and porridge.
So Bukanezi, whose name means the weak one, lived to become a strong one. In time, at 12 to 14 years old, he repaid Eleanor by remaining with her rather than joining the wild herds, as other young bulls do at this age. Many orphaned calves had been with Eleanor over the years, but Bukanezi always held a special place in her affections.
As she grew older, Eleanor became the self-appointed matriarch of the orphaned herd. Her status made her unwilling to join the wild herds, as she was too young to be a matriarch under normal circumstances, and would have had to step down in rank. She did eventually return to the wild at Tsavo, however, and raised infants of her own.
I have two human daughters: Gillian Woodley, who assists me with the orphans and running the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and Angela Sheldrick, an accomplished wildlife painter who designed our greeting cards. I am grandmother of Gillian’s two daughters and Angela’s son, and am now grandmother of elephants as well.
Talk of culling
In 1948, when Tsavo first came into being, human pressure had yet to manifest itself along the boundaries, so elephants roamed an ecosystem of 16,000 square miles, twice the size of the park itself. By the late 1960s, however, human expansion and good park protection brought most of the 45,000 elephants of the ecosystem inside Tsavo. Their impact on the environment became glaringly obvious.
Damage to the woodland scrub trees at a glance appeared catastrophic, but as the picture unfolded, it became clear that what seemed to be destruction was in fact no more than a phase of a perfectly natural cycle in which scrub returned to grassland, which benefitted the grazers hitherto suppressed. Only the elephant can do this job.
Inevitably there was talk of culling. The corruption endemic within the higher echelons of government required that we proceed with caution. Having spent two decades controlling elephant poaching by the Waliangulu tribe, who had traditionally hunted elephants, we knew that the authorities might have trouble explaining why they could kill elephants when local people could not.
We also had the South African example before us. We knew that with culling would come tanneries and meat processing plants, employing workers who could not be easily dismissed. Elephants would be culled simply to maintain the culling industry.
Fortunately the Tsavo culling debate became moot in 1970 when a worse-than-usual drought hit. First the elephant birth rate fell. Then the matriarchs led their families to easy reach of permanent water. There they did not starve, but were simply unable to get enough nutrition from the plant material that was left for them to eat.
Malnutrition quietly killed 9,000 elephants, mainly females, of all ages. This plunged the elephant population into a long, slow decline, enabling the growth of a new generation of trees planted by the elephants themselves as they distributed seeds far and wide with their dung.
The die-off was all over within three months, with no disruption to other wildlife and no human profiteering from a cataclysmic natural tragedy. Only the ivory was removed from the carcasses. In a perfect world this too should have remained where it was, to be recycled back from whence it came.
After the Tsavo die-off came the rampant poaching of the 1970s and 1980s. This pushed the elephant population rapidly below the optimum downward swing of the natural vegetation seesaw, foreshortening the grassland cycle. The poaching was the only unnatural event in the 50 years of Tsavo as a national park. Within 15 years the former overpopulation of elephants became near annihilation.
Moved to Nairobi
We were moved from our beloved Tsavo to Nairobi National Park in 1976. That was when the founding president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, was very ill. He died two years later and individuals within the ruling family wanted to get their hands on the ivory stockpile. They couldn’t get it while David was in charge at Tsavo, so they and their friends in power arranged to merge the Kenya National Parks authority with the government Game Department, to form the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department.
This was the forerunner of the Kenya Wildlife Service, but it was not organized to do effective law enforcement until after president Daniel arap Moi put Richard Leakey in charge in 1988.
In 1976 they brought us to Nairobi, looted Tsavo, and we heard that the culprits bought a big hotel in Washington D.C. with the proceeds from selling the ivory.
David died suddenly just six months after the move.
Founding the orphanage
I was granted permission to build a small house actually in the Nairobi National Park, where we are today, so that I could continue my work with animals. I created a small waterhole and salt-lick near my home, and set about gaining the confidence of the wild residents to replace the Tsavo animal family I missed so much.
Fortunately the Tsavo orphans had all become independent before we were transferred. Only the two rhinos I had cared for were moved to the safety of a private ranch, because they were at risk from poachers and in fact almost every rhino in Tsavo was annihilated in the terrible massacres that followed.
The first Nairobi Park residents to accept me were the warthogs. In time they became almost as tame as if they had been hand-raised, and they too brought their offspring back for me to enjoy. The giraffes took the cue, followed by impala, bush-buck, eland, the odd buffalo, and baboons. Some 50 to 80 baboons now seem to believe this is the primate quarters, for all types of primate, and make themselves too much at home.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
I established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in memory of David and his life’s work, maintaining my involvement with conservation along different lines.
As well as publicizing the plight of elephants internationally, the Trust was among the first organizations to alert the world to the plight of rhinos due to poaching. Through the expertise and personal input of trustee Peter Jenkins, we created Kenya’s first fenced high-security rhino sanctuary in Lake Nakuru National Park.
Under the direction of another trustee, the late Bill Woodley, and in conjunction with the Eden Wildlife Trust and the African Wildlife Foundation, we helped establish a second fenced rhino sanctuary at Tsavo West.
Through trustee Ken Kuhle, we helped create the Rhino Ark Trust, which has since raised sizeable sums to fence Aberdare National Park, yet another important rhino area. Our strategy has been emulated elsewhere in Africa and is now the model for retrieving rhinos from the brink of extinction.
Funded anti-poaching work
On many occasions the Trust provided emergency funding to keep the anti-poaching patrols at Tsavo, Meru, and Aberdare National Parks functional during the 1970s and 1980s. We provided a slush fund to establish an intelligence network and reward informers in the fight against poaching, and continue to make a sizeable contingency fund available to Tsavo East, enabling the warden to deal with unforeseen crises, with emphasis on protecting the elephants.
On an ongoing basis the Trust provides funding to help the warden at Mount Kenya National Park to curb illegal hunting with dogs, and to employ laborers to remove snares.
In addition, we hosted the start-up of the indigenous Kenyan organization Youth for Conservation, founded in 1999 by Josphat Ngonyo, who was among our most valuable employees from 1996 to 2000, and encouraged the snare removal projects in the Kenyan National Parks that were the first Youth for Conservation activities.
[Josphat Ngonyo left Youth for Conservation in 2005 to found the African Network for Animal Welfare, which continues to do desnaring sweeps of National Parks in partnership with Youth for Conservation, headed since 2005 by Steve Itela.]
Nostalgia, sadness, & grief
When we first moved to Nairobi I really believed my foster-mothering of infant elephants was over. It was with great nostalgia, deep sadness, and grief that I returned periodically to Tsavo, to keep in touch with Eleanor and Bukanezi. I endured the pain of seeing many things going wrong in our former home and life’s work.
Poaching reduced the 20,000 elephants we had in 1976 to a mere 8,000. Roads and infrastructure which had taken 28 years to develop fell into disrepair. Good staff became demoralized and corrupt. I worried endlessly about my elephant orphans, now living among the wild herds.
One day there was a terrible massacre of elephants in the Voi River valley, and poor Bukanezi was among the dead. He was just 20. I had lost another elephant child.
I dreaded losing Eleanor in the same way as Bukanezi, but fortunately she stayed with the orphan group, where she was safe. Nonetheless, Eleanor was affected by the poaching.
On one occasion when I visited her I could sense that she had received disturbing news from her wild kin. Swaying backward and forward, with outstretched ears, she was miles away and not the least bit interested in my appearance. She was clearly very, very upset. What was happening to the elephants at this time was nothing short of genocide.
I fervently hoped I would never be called on to raise a baby elephant again. But early in March 1987 a baby elephant was brought into the Maralal Safari Lodge in urgent need of care.
After almost 30 years of caring for elephants, I thought there couldn t be much more to learn.
This orphan, Olmeg, was to prove me wrong. Olmeg is the Masai word for “outsider.” He was a pathetic waif who epitomized the tragedy that had beset his kind. His herd had been stampeded by an armed gang. In the ensuing panic he fell into a deep trench. There he was trapped and burnt to a frazzle by the tropical sun. Luckily a passing Samburu tribesman heard his bellows and alerted some Kenya Wildlife Service rangers, who hauled him out.
As luck would have it, on the very day that Olmeg arrived I received a visit from wildlife veterinarian Bill Jordan, founder of Care For The Wild. This led to starting the Care For The Wild orphan elephant adoption scheme, which supported the care and rehabilitation of our orphans for many years.
I had always had difficulty in feeding orphans. They shoved and pushed, first wanted milk and then didn’t, and I had long puzzled as to what could be missing. Olmeg taught me. Because he was so sunburnt, Olmeg was fed in the shelter of a small tent, and this solved all of the feeding tantrums. Reversing into it, he positioned his little trunk gently against the canvas surface and when everything felt just right, he took the whole bottle of milk without any fuss.
The missing elements were a large protective shape above, to replace the lost mother, and a soft feel for the tip of the trunk.
Replacing the lost elephant family
Olmeg was the first of many successes, though unfortunately we do still receive orphaned elephants who are too far gone to save. The babies are always severely traumatized on arrival, having witnessed the massacre of their families by ivory poachers or having become separated from their herd in a stampede. Unless newborn and therefore lacking comprehension, they inevitably enter a period of deep grief which can last for months. Not all can be persuaded to live.
A team of trained keepers replaces the lost elephant family. One is with each calf 24 hours a day.
Distractions of all sorts must be built into the daily routine, such as walks in varied surroundings, and opportunities to play with sticks, stones, rubber tubes, and balls. When a baby elephant plays for the first time, there is a chance for success.
Reintroduction to the wild
Elephants need space, so when their two milk-dependent infant years have passed, they and their keepers move to Tsavo, to begin reintegration into the wild community. Days are spent walking with their keepers far and wide in the bush, returning to their stockade in the evening to avoid attack by lions.
When the orphans socialize with wild herds, the keepers wait at a safe distance. By the age of puberty, between 10 and 15 years, the orphans have close friends within the wild herds, know their way around, and are independent of their human family, but will always retain a deep fondness for the individuals who were family in their infancy.
The fallacy of “sustainable use”
It is a testament to the success of the worldwide ban on ivory trafficking that the early 1990s were quiet at our Nairobi orphanage. However, the number of orphans arriving at the orphanage greatly increased as pressure to lift the ivory ban escalated in recent years. As 1999 ended, we had more orphaned elephants than ever.
Whenever the ivory cartel representatives descend on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species triennial meetings, or on our government, to lobby for more ivory traffic and trophy hunting, bringing their mouthpiece quasi-conservationists who talk of culling and trophy hunting as “sustainable use,” we must get across to the world that every piece of ivory is a haunting memory of a once proud and majestic animal who should have lived three score years and 10; who has loved and been loved, and was once a member of a close-knit and loving family akin to our own; who left dependent young who will die in terror and isolation; who suffered and died in unspeakable agony to yield a tusk for a trinket.