Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick D.B.E, M.B.S was born in Kenya on the 4th June 1934 and grew up amongst animals, both wild and domestic. For over 25 years, from 1955 until 1976, Daphne Sheldrick lived and worked alongside her late husband, David, the famous founder Warden of Kenya's giant Tsavo National Park. Since the death of her husband in 1977, she has lived and worked in the Nairobi National Park, courtesy of the Kenya Government, her home duplicating as the Orphans' Nursery. It is here that she has successfully hand-reared over 80 newborn Elephant orphans, some from just hours old, the first time this has ever been achieved. Having completed their two milk dependent years, these orphans, along with the human family of Keepers who replace the lost elephant family, grow up in the Tsavo National Park, where they mingle freely and at will with the wild herds and eventually become fully integrated back into the wild community. Some of Daphne's orphans have now had wild born young, which they have brought back to show their human family. Daphne has also successfully raised and rehabilitated over a dozen Black Rhino orphans from newborn, some of whom have had wild born young which they have shared with their human friends.
Through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, established after the death of her husband in 1977 in his memory, she has made a further significant contribution to wildlife conservation in Kenya, supporting the Kenya Wildlife Service by meeting contingency needs during times of economic constraint; funding fuel for anti-poaching forces, de-snaring Park boundaries and mobilizing a fully equipped Mobile Veterinary Unit to deal with the sick and wounded in the Tsavo ecosystem as well as Amboseli, the Shimba Hills and Chuyulu National Parks promptly and unobtrusively responding whenever possible, just as David would have wished.
The key to her success has been her life-long experience of wild creatures, an in-depth knowledge of animal psychology, the behavioural characteristics of the different species, and, of course, that most essential component, a sincere and deep empathy. For her work in this field Daphne Sheldrick was decorated by the Queen in 1989 with an M.B.E., elevated to U.N.E.P.’s elite Global 500 Roll of Honour in 1992, among the first 500 people worldwide to have been accorded this particular honour, and awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery by Glasgow University in June 2000. In December 2001 her work was honoured by the Kenya Government through a prestigious decoration - a Moran of the Burning Spear (M.B.S.), and in 2002 by the B.B.C. when she received their Lifetime Achievement Award. In the November 2005 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine Daphne Sheldrick was named as one of 35 people worldwide who have made a difference in terms of animal husbandry and wildlife conservation. In the 2006 New Year’s Honours List, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Dr. Daphne Sheldrick to Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the first Knighthood to be awarded in Kenya since the country received Independence in 1963.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust website can be found here: www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
How has conservation in Kenya developed since you first became involved?
I think I am the only person left living who remembers the beginning of National Parks in this country, during the Colonial Area in 1948 when Nairobi National Park was gazetted as a Protected Area, followed closely by Tsavo. The development of the National Parks during the Colonial era under Mervyn Cowie, who was the first Director, was undertaken by extremely proficient Naturalists, who did not view things in isolation, but looked at all species as the Big Picture, and as Naturalists allowed Nature to make any adjustments to habitat and species. By the l960’s the infrastructure of all National Parks and Reserves in Kenya was almost fully in place. It must be remembered that in those days there was a distinction between a National Park and a Reserve. National Parks were set aside exclusively for wildlife and the preservation of wild places without human intrusion other than the visiting public, who stuck to designated roads and areas and where revenue was returned to the National Parks authority (an independent Board of Trustees, divorced from Government interference. Government produced a subvention to top of funding if need be in order to maintain standard and run the Parks effectively. National Reserves were places set aside where wildlife was protected but where the land was shared by indigenous tribal peoples, who benefited directly from the revenues and where the interests of humans took precedence. In 1976, the Independent Kenyan Government disbanded the National Park Trustees overnight and seized control. Since then, the system has been plagued by in-house corruption, and political interference, with practically no maintenance of the original infrastructure and general deterioration. The Wildlife Authority has a huge bureaucracy, so most of the revenue supports a huge H.Q. With the field starved of funding and support. That is why many NGO’s have had to step in and provide support to keep the wheels turning!
As a girl, growing up in Kenya, did you ever imagine that you would play such an important role in the conservation of the country’s wildlife resources?
I have always loved animals, both domestic and wild, having grown up on a Highland farm when wildlife was also part of our daily lives. I had many wild orphans as pets, such as dwarf mongooses, antelope orphans, a zebra foal etc., and holidays were spent under canvas in the wild places that my parents also loved, such as the Masai Mara (before there were even any roads there). My brother was amongst the first recruits for the National Parks Service, joining the Service in 1948 as a Junior Assistant Warden, and actually designed the National Parks emblem. He became the longest serving Warden in Africa and worked also in Tsavo and Meru National Park. It was through him that I met and married Bill Woodley, and then David Sheldrick. Of course, I never envisaged playing a major role myself in wildlife conservation and thought that I would simply have a supporting role to my husband, who was the founder Warden of Tsavo and the role model for all Wardens during his life and even after his death in June 1977. He became the Warden of Tsavo East National Park when it was first created, and it was he who developed that Park in its entirety, leaving it with the finest infrastructure of any Park in Kenya.
How did David's passion for wildlife and Tsavo influence your outlook on life? Before marrying him was your interest in conservation as strong or was it through the constant exposure to the environment of living in a national park that the spark was ignited within you?
I believe I was born with the spark for Nature. I have always had a special empathy for all animals, and have always loved the natural world and all that it contains. Of course, exposure to Tsavo, and benefiting from David’s wisdom and knowledge enlarged my own profoundly. He was a fund of knowledge. Besides knowing every animal, bird, and plant and their role and contribution to the environment, at the end of his life he was very involved in a study of the insect world and equally fascinated by that. David was never idle. He was an incredible person, proficient in all he undertook, be it building, designing, anti-poaching, scientific oriented studies and so on.
In the company of your husband, you witnessed Tsavo develop from an untamed wilderness to a National Park worthy of world acclaim: what are some of your favourite memories of Tsavo in the old days?
My favourite memories of Tsavo in the old days was a more relaxed existence before the days of aircrafts over Tsavo, when we spent weeks and sometimes months camping out in the bush. Special memories surround all the orphans that we reared, which covered most species in addition to the early elephant and rhino orphans. The Park was closed to the public during the rains, when we enjoyed water skiing on Aruba lake (created by David by damming the Voi river) and kayaking down the rapids of the flooded Voi River, and when we had the wilderness to ourselves, and the time to study and enjoy it.
What has been the single most rewarding experience of your lifetime in wildlife conservation?
I think the most rewarding part of my life has been the success of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust established in memory of my husband, and the knowledge that I have been able to contribute and make a difference to the lives of many animals, and also have some influence on the direction of policy in this country through generating a better understanding of the nature of elephants, both locally and internationally.
In the setting up of the David Sheldrick Trust in 1977, what initially were its aims and how, during the intervening years have they been achieved?
The establishment of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was not my brain-child, but that of David’s friends, initially to disburse funding that came in, in memory of him, which donors wanted put towards a project of which he would have approved. The Trust became its own entity in the early 80’s, rather than just a project of African Wildlife Foundation (who handled the funding that came in). Today, the Trust has hand-reared over 80 elephant orphans, 62 from early infancy, 26 of whom are now living wild lives amongst their wild peers in Tsavo East, having been successfully rehabilitated back where they rightly belong, many of whom are having wild-born young. Our African Elephant Keepers have also hand-reared 8 orphaned Black Rhinos, and other species such as lesser kudus, duikers, zebra and dikdik under my supervision, which has been very rewarding. We finance and run 7 full time anti-poching De-Snaring teams, 2 fully equipped mobile Veterinary Units that deal with the sick and wounded in both Tsavos, Amboseli National Park, the Shimba Hills Reserve and Tsavo’s neighbouring ranches, with a second unit covering the Masai Mara, and Rift Valley including Nakuru National Park and the Rift based ranches. We financially support the Kenya Wildlife Service in terms of fuel and help with vehicle repairs etc., and run a community out-reach programme focusing on schools around the Tsavo boundary. One of our biggest projects has been the fencing of the very sensitive Northern boundary to Tsavo, 64 miles of which have been completed, with an extension planned right up to the Chyulu Hills National Park. This has been the most successful fence in the country in that no large animal has breached it, and the community are employed to maintain and look after it, under the supervision of the Contractor to whom we pay maintenance funds monthly. By looking on our website under the Annual Reports, you will be able to get any further information about what the Trust does on an annual basis. The Mission Statement of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is to embrace all measures that compliment the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife. These include anti-poaching, safeguarding the natural environment, enhancing community awareness, addressing animal welfare issues and providing veterinary assistance to animals in need. An import project of the Trust is the rescue, hand rearing and rehabilitation of elephant and rhino orphans as well as orphans of other wild species that can ultimately enjoy a quality of life in wild terms when grown. The Trust accepts vegetational progression triggered by indigenous fauna as a natural event. It does not support random scientific research that simply serves human curiosity and which impacts negatively or causes suffering to wild species, whether individually or collectively.
You are a world authority on both the African Elephant and the Black Rhinoceros: how did your expertise come about?
My expertise on both elephants and rhinos has come through first hand experience spanning 50 years, rearing them as orphans, understanding their body language and their instinctive behaviour, combined with 30 years of monitoring the behaviour of those living wild in Tsavo. After David died I wrote articles for the Wildlife Clubs in lay terms having studied scientific findings on many species (much of which, according to my own observations and deductions, was flawed through the inability of the Scientific world to attribute human emotion to animals in those days).
Explain the concept of a “family” in terms of raising a young orphaned elephant.
The concept of “family” in terms of rearing elephant orphans, is literally to try and replace what the orphan would have enjoyed had it not been orphaned, and that would have been a loving family, in constant physical contact 24 hours a day. Until such time as an orphan is ready to take the quantum leap back into the wild system, the human “family”, i.e. their Keepers, are with them, sleeping with them during their initial Nursery period, and accompanying them out in the bush during the rehabilitation stage. The bond between the human family and the elephants is as strong as it would be within their elephant family. It is based on mutual trust and LOVE. Our Keepers never even carry a twig, and discipline their charges simply by tone of voice and the waggling of a finger. The elephants want to please those they love and that has been the key to our success. They will always love their human family, and will be able to recognize them once they are living wild, as individuals, because when with the wild herds, they will be getting another message about humans. Because the elephants love their Keepers, it does not follow that they will be friendly to all humans. Like humans, they have their loved ones, and strangers are treated as strangers.
During the dark days of the eighties when a vast proportion of Kenya's elephants were poached for their ivory, what action did you and the David Sheldrick Trust take– in terms of bringing to the world's attention the slaughter and making the government take strong measures to prevent it?
We did what we could in terms of anti-poaching, speaking out about in-house corruption that drove the slaughter both locally and internationally. The orphans that were rescued told the story, and spread it internationally. It was only when Dr. Leakey took control of the government Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, (which had earned the reputation of The Wildlife Poaching and Mismanagement Department) and formed the Kenya Wildlife Service that things gradually came under control, aided by the authority given to the Service to shoot to kill poachers within the National Parks.
How does the trust integrate local people within its structure? In terms of employment, training, education and so forth? And further to this, how many people are employed by the trust and what are their job descriptions?
We only employ local people. We have Elephant and Rhino Keepers, Clerks, Messengers, De-Snarers, Vets, Drivers, Mehanics, PR Community personnel, Yard workers etc. We employ some 120 people.
What is the annual expenditure of the trust and how much of this is comprised of charitable donations?
What comes in to the Trust in terms of donations rapidly goes out as support to the field. The Trust relies on donations to undertake its work, the Orphans’ Project supported by the digital International Fostering Scheme. Our annual expenditure differs from year to year according to the projects that we are able to support, so it is difficult to answer that question. I would need to go into the Audited Reports year by year and we are still awaiting last year’s audited Accounts.
To quote from your website – “David Sheldrick strongly censored the extravagance of exorbitant overheads" How then are charitable donations spent by the trust and to which areas are most funds diverted?
David did indeed censor a lot of the bigger NGO’s whose staff benefit from exhorbitant salaries and expenses, and where most of the funding goes into administration. Here in the Trust, we have just 3 people who guide the workings of the Trust, myself, my daughter and her husband, with 2 Messengers who act as our wheels and legs, and 2 Account Clerks. The Trust employs some 120 people, all the rest being either Elephant Keepers, De-Snarers, Mechanics to maintain our fleet of vehicles, the Vets and their Drivers and P.R. personnel for the community projects – all working at a field level. Again take a look at our 2006 Annual Report for more details.
For those who are reading the interview and are interested in your work, what is the best way to get involved with the David Sheldrick Trust? Can one volunteer to work on any of your projects?
We cannot accept outside help, even voluntarily, because we cannot accommodate outsiders, and there is an element of danger walking on foot in the bush, to which the Government will not allow visitors to be exposed for obvious reasons. Also, Kenya had a burgeoning un-employment problem, and any position, whether voluntary or otherwise, has to be filled by an indigenous Kenyan, as ordered by the Government. Outsiders need Work Permits (which are difficult to acquire and also expensive). The orphans that we rear are the property of the State, and we have to abide by their rules. People can always donate to a project of their choice, or foster an orphaned elephant through the website. The Fostering Programme is very popular with people, who receive monthly links to The Keepers’ Diaries that chronicle the progress of all our elephants on a daily basis, a water-colour painting done by Angela, my daughter, and become part of the Project, kept informed of “hatches, matches and dispatches”.
How has the internet affected the trust’s level of recognition throughout the world?
Enormously through the dissemination of information, and the digital fostering programme.
The B.B.C’s “Elephant Diaries”, (with Jonathon Scott of “Big Cat Diary” fame) recently was filmed with the elephant orphans under your care – how did this project come about and what affect has it had in terms of interest in the David Sheldrick Trust?
“Elephant Diaries” has been a hugely popular series that has gone world-wide and was the brain child of the BBC. Elephant Diaries II will be shown during the Summer of this year having been filmed during 2006 and we hope that the series will continue on an annual basis. We have been featured on the American CBS 60 Minutes Programme twice, which enjoys a viewership of 30 million plus, and all this has raised the profile of the Trust enormously.
You have seen, over time the gun replaced with the camera – how do you see the future of eco tourism in East Africa?
I hope that eco-tourism will replace Sport Hunting and the killing of Animals for Pleasure, which in my view is an out-dated concept that is not popular with the local people of Kenya, but of course very popular to those who will benefit financially. Sport Hunting is not an option in this country, because wildlife is being decimated by the illegal Bushmeat trade which is now commercial and it would be difficult to control because of the endemic corruption in this country.
What is the greatest threat to Kenyan wildlife both now and in the future, and what measures can be taken to combat its affects?
The greatest threat to wildlife generally in this country is the rampant bushmeat trade, and the Ivory Trade which drives the poaching of elephants. Rhinos are also seriously at risk because of the demand for their horns in the Far East. The growing influence in Africa of countries such as China poses a threat for China is the largest importer of illicit Ivory, and has a growing elite which will fuel the demand and result in an increase in poaching, such as has been seen in Central Africa, where elephants are all but extinct. The solution lies in killing the demand, burning all ivory and rhino horn stockpiles and better policing of the Protected Areas.
Since the amendment of the law to allow the sale of wild game meat, what increase in levels of poaching has been seen and what action is being taken to try to control it on a national level?
Making wild game meat legal has fuelled the illegal bushmeat trade, which used to be only on a limited subsistence level but is now commercial, with hundred and thousands of animals either snared, clubbed having been dazzled by spotlights, or shot with poisoned arrows. This is not sustainable and poses an enormous threat to Kenya’s tourist Industry and its wildlife resource. Wildlife has decreased in this country by as much as 60% and is declining still.
What does the future hold for the David Sheldrick Trust?
In Africa, we don’t predict the future, because one can’t. We take each day as it comes and do our best.
With hindsight, is there anything you could have done differently in your life, and if so, why?
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.