Fransje van RielDaphne Sheldrick: A true child of Africa
by Fransje van Riel
Daphne Sheldrick has spent more than four decades raising orphaned wildlife in Kenya, and is recognised as a hands-on authority on elephant behaviour.
Fourty-one years ago, on a sweltering hot day in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, a small orphaned elephant stood forlornly. Several meters away lay the partly decomposed body of its mother, the poacher’s poisonous arrow still protruding from the dead elephant cow’s side.
This little pachyderm was spotted by a handful of people, one of whom was the Governor of Kenya and his wife, lady Eleanor Renison. The frightened elephant was caught and relocated to safety.
Over the next three years, Eleanor the elephants was a tourist attraction, starred in the movie Born Free and was finally taken to the Nairobi Elephant Orphanage. However, due to lack of exercise, Eleanor’s condition deteriorated in captivity and she was moved to Tsavo East National Park. There, she was cared for by world-renowned naturalist Daphne Sheldrick.
A true child of Africa, Daphne was born in 1934 and raised on her parents’ farm in the highlands of Kenya. Much of her childhood was spent on safari in Kenya’s spectacular Mara country. In 1955, Daphne moved to Tsavo National Park, a wilderness area of 8,000 square miles that was home to the largest population of wild elephants in Kenya.
It was here that Daphne met and later married David Sheldrick. She found in him a kindred spirit with interests and views akin to her own. Their ultimate goal for wildlife orphans was for them always to be returned back to the wild.
In her book 'An Elephant called Eleanor', Daphne writes:
‘There was one strict rule about which David was absolutely unbending and which we, his family, had to promise to understand and always follow. It was that the animals that came to us were on loan from the wilderness for as long as they were dependent and chose to stay; that because they were born wild, they must be given the opportunity to live wild again, for this was their destiny and purpose in life, and their birthright. To nurture them in infancy and care for them during their formative years was our task. The last part of our duty caused perhaps the greatest heartache, for saying goodbye is never easy, especially to loved ones, knowing perhaps better than most, the risks attached to living free. But their pride and deep satisfaction that comes with achievement and the joy of witnessing a hand raised animal rediscover its natural identity and its lost worlds among its kind, fulfilling its inborn basic aspirations and instinct, supersedes all else and makes it worthwhile”.
Daphne’s husband David was the first Park Warden of Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. Daphne cared for and rehabilitated many animal orphans including black rhino, zebra, eland, kudu, impala, duiker, reedbuck, dik-dik, warthogs, civets, mongooses and birds.
Daphne wrote about her experiences with wild animals in four books and numerous articles. Over the years, she has also created an enormous amount of awareness for wildlife conservation and the environment by lecturing and appearing on many television programmes. Her first book, 'The Orphans of Tsavo', was the recipient of The Grand Prix Verite, a French literary award. Furthermore, Daphne has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Veterinary Science by the Glasgow University, decorated with an MBE by the Queen and elevated to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) ELITE global 500 Roll of Honour.
In 1977 David and Daphne moved to their new home on the edge of the Nairobi National Park. Sadly, shortly after moving David died unexpectedly. Daphne established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in memory of her husband.
However, Daphne has continued her work with the orphans, hand-raising more than 30 elephants, some of which were only hours old when found. She has also perfected the milk formula for both elephants and rhino milk dependent orphans, something that has taken her 28 years of trial and error.
Family is the centre of a baby elephant’s existence, so it is crucial that, during its first year of infancy when a calf would, under normal circumstances, still suckle from its mother, the foster human is together with the calf at all times. Daphne’s experienced helpers spend every minute of a 24-hour day with the orphans, even sleeping next to the calf at night. During the second year, the quantity and frequency of milk feeds is slowly reduced while the orphans are introduced to vegetation. During this second year the orphans are transferred to the Tsavo National Park – along with their human family - where they are introduced to other ‘’orphanage’’ elephants.
The process of reintegration with the wild herds is a slow one. Although the newcomers normally intrigue the wild elephants, it depends on the personality of the individual orphan as to how long total reintegration takes. Experience has shown that by the age of 10 all orphans are independent of their human family. The well-known adage that an elephant never forgets rings true, as once the orphans have grown up and have moved away, they appear to remember their human foster family, visiting whenever they and their new wild family are in the area.
Apart form the many years of caring for and attending to wild orphans, Daphne’s expertise was recently requested to assess the condition of the Tuli Elephants. The issue involved 30 elephant calves that were removed from their family herds and sold via an animal broker to zoos and safari parks around the world.
More recently, Daphne found herself a victim of sensationalist reports that she and her staff repeatedly abuse the Kenyan elephant orphans by using a cattle prodder. The object in question, the ‘cattle prod’ is powered by only 1.5 volts and is used very occasionally to administer a tiny zing as disciplinarian action, and, as Daphne writes, “not when they (the elephants) are fearful and wild in order to tame them when newly rescued, or when they are angry, or to force them into performing in any unnatural way, but simply to teach them that they must not knock people down when they play exuberantly around human onlookers”.
“To condone such bad behaviour in elephants is to ultimately condemn that animal to death for being labelled dangerous around humans”.
After 40 years of caring for wild animals, Daphne Sheldrick knows what she is talking about, as well as knowing that these remarkable animals are capable of exuding love and foraging a deep and emotional bond with their worst enemy – man.
If you’d like more information on Daphne Sheldrick’s work with elephants or would like to make a donation, please contact:
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Box 15555 Nairobi, Kenya.
Tel 09 254 289 1996 Fax 09 254 289 0053
First published by Fransje van Riel on her website www.fransjevanriel.com. Used with permission. Images © Fransje van Riel