The Elephant Lady
The Satya Interview with Daphne Sheldrick
With a fondness for trunks in her living space, Daphne Sheldrick is
one of the only orphan elephant rehabilitators in the world. Born and
raised in Kenya, Sheldrick has been working with elephants for 50 years.
She began as a naturalist-researcher in Tsavo, in Kenya’s southeast,
where her husband, David, served as warden for nearly 30 years. When
he died in 1977, she set up the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The
organization works on a range of elephant conservation efforts, including
anti-poaching programs, support for a mobile veterinary service in
Tsavo, and advocacy on issues like the ivory trade (against).
Since 1987, the trust has run an elephant nursery in the grassland adjacent to
Nairobi National Park. Current infant residents—ranging in size from tiny
(a few weeks old and charmingly unsteady on their legs) to venti (just shy of
two years)—receive constant care from keepers. The nursery opens to the
public for an hour a day. But this is no zoo: far from it, and Sheldrick is outspoken
in her opposition to elephant captivity of any kind. The orphans do no tricks
and visitors are not allowed to touch them—even the shy, curious children
who come regularly on school trips. When they are about two, the orphans are
transported to a relocation facility in Tsavo. Here, they get more care and controlled
exposure to wild herds until around age 10, when they are ready to leave. All
55 of the African elephants Sheldrick has fostered have or will join wild herds
in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. They have also taken in a few orphaned
Satya Consulting Editor Mia MacDonald recently met Daphne
Sheldrick (a tall,
direct woman with a mane of white hair) in Nairobi to talk about the care of
orphans with huge ears and supporting animal rights.
So what do baby elephants need? What does the nursery provide them with?
The nursery gets them through the very fragile, essentially full-time ‘milk
year.’ Elephants need milk for two years, but start taking a few greens
at six months. The second year is their weaning year, but they need milk as well.
We have to supplement the diets of our growing elephants after the age of two
with coconut because of the fat; they need help until they’re about five
or six years old. It’s taken me 28 years to get everything right. It’s
not just the milk formula, it’s also the care, the husbandry and dealing
with the problems they have—they’re very fragile animals.
They also need psychological help until they’re comfortable amongst the
wild herds. It’s not a question of taking an elephant and dumping it in
the bush. They’ve actually got to make friends, find the friends more interesting
than their human family, and gradually make the transition. To begin, they stay
with us and we expose them to wild situations. Then they decide to be elephants
and to visit us. But elephants never forget, so they will always harbor love
for their human families.
Have you really had a 100 percent success rate releasing the orphans into the
Yes, I think so. We don’t know what happens to the ones who haven’t
come back, whether they’re just happy with the wild elephants, which I
suspect, or if they have come to grief in some way. Sometimes they come back
after four years—and four years in the life of an elephant is not very
long. They live 70 or 80 years. One young bull came back after eight years.
Is it difficult for you when they go?
I’ve learned over the years not to be selfish about animals. You want the
best for them, just as you do for your own children. For an elephant, the best
for them is not sitting around in the backyard. They need space. We’re
always sad to see them go, but we’re happy with the success. We’ve
raised two now from the day they were born.
Are there orphaned elephants you have had to turn away because you just
have the room?
We have to make space. You can’t turn away a baby elephant. I’d give
up my bedroom first—and that’s happened before. When the first ones
came in, we had two or three stables. Until more stables were built, the elephants
were in the house. We’ve got a few spaces now, but they’re filling
up rapidly, because we also have three rhinos. We’re hoping not to have
to expand, but poaching seems to be on the rise and the Kenya Wildlife Service
[a government agency] has been in a mess.
Has the new government, fairly elected in 2002, made things better for elephants
than the old regime of Daniel arap Moi?
The new government has been an enormous disappointment. They seem completely
disinterested in wildlife. They’re thinking of votes all the time so everything’s
for “the people.” But bending the rules defeats the people and compromises
the animals. They are talking about grabbing a lot of land in national parks.
They’ve done nothing to control the bushmeat trade. We’ve never had
such a threat posed to wildlife. We’re hoping this government doesn’t
get in again. [The government has to be] serious about wanting to preserve its
wildlife and serious about what it will take to preserve the tourism industry;
without it, they would be sunk. But they don’t think like that. It’s
just all [about] themselves.
Can you talk about the bushmeat trade? How big is it?
It’s now a commercial trade—it’s not subsistence anymore—and
it poses a huge threat. Kenya actually exports bushmeat to West and Central Africa
because they’ve eaten everything there. It also goes to capitals in Europe
with immigrant communities. It’s unsustainable here, and it’s threatening
our wildlife—unless the government does something about it pretty rapidly.
The previous government opened it up to private ranchers, and they started offering
game meat in up-market restaurants like Carnivore. All the tribes that traditionally
didn’t eat meat see the tourists waltzing into it, so they think, “Oh,
that’s good. We could snare an animal.” On private ranches, the Kenya
Wildlife Service has never had the capacity to monitor the trade, so it’s
completely out of control. Wherever there’s money involved, unfortunately,
corruption creeps in, particularly in Africa.
What needs to be done to stop the trade?
It has to be addressed through the courts. A chap that’s found with bushmeat
gets one or two days in jail or some community work and then he’s back
in the bush. One of our teams in Tsavo picked up over 1,000 snares in three days.
We can pick up snares and save animals, but that’s not the answer: we can
only cover a minute portion of Tsavo’s boundaries.
That’s really disturbing. What’s the outlook for elephants in Kenya?
Poaching is definitely on the increase, and we only know what goes on in the
protected areas and not all of that either, because half the time there is no
aerial surveillance. In the northern area of Tsavo, which is 3,000 square miles,
there are seven rangers. The [poachers’] snares target everything: lots
of elephants get them round their legs. The snares sever their legs and eventually
they have to be shot. [Others have] severed their trunks off. In the Maasai Mara
you can see masses of them with only half a trunk. It’s terrible.
You have been outspoken on the issue of elephants in captivity. Why did
involved? Often, there’s not a lot of overlap between people who care about
wildlife and people who care about animal rights.
No elephant can be happy in captivity. They can’t be. It’s actually
cruel to subject [them] to lifelong captivity. No matter how wonderful we think
a zoo is in human terms, it’s not adequate for an elephant. You can’t
give them an enclosure that’s hundreds of miles long, and that’s
what they need. Elephants also need friends and family, just like humans. The
worst punishment we give a human is life imprisonment. So why do we think an
elephant is going to be happy in a zoo? They have human emotions, the same span
of life, a sense of family, a sense of death—they’re very human-like
animals. It’s unpopular to think that way, but it’s true. We are
animals. It just suits us to pretend we are different, but actually we are not
that different, even from a tree squirrel. I’m asked to write affidavits
against abuse of animals all over the world—not just elephants. I do that
all the time.
Do you consider that an important part of the work that you do?
Yes. I’d like to think that if I can help an animal, irrespective of where
it is, I’d certainly try.
So, would you describe yourself as a supporter of animal rights?
I’m not supportive of people who go and open up cages and let animals out
to run riot, without actually relocating them in a sensible way. But I think
animals should have rights, the right to humane treatment. That’s the right
What about breeding programs? For example, Ringling Bros., the circus, has an
elephant breeding program in Florida that they say is contributing to conservation.
That one [Ringling] has a stinking reputation. I’ve written I don’t
know how many affidavits about the elephants they’ve been abusing. Unless
you actually breed an animal in captivity to put back to the wild, it’s
just a con.
What keeps you going? I mean, this is hard work.
Well, I can’t just abandon it, can I? We have 17, plus another 29 elephants
that rely on what we do here. The thought of walking away is unrealistic. It’s
just not on the agenda. Much as I often dream of a nice, comfortable retirement
in a little cottage with a garden and being able to sit and knit and crochet
and look at the TV and just have a quiet life, it’s not an option. I never
really envisaged after my husband died being involved like this. I thought I’d
probably retire and write books. I’ve written four and I’ve been
trying to write my autobiography for the last ten years, but these elephants
What are your sources of strength or support? Is it the elephants?
It’s not just the elephants, it’s all animals, and the joy I get
from them. I grew up on a farm and had wild orphan animals. I’ve lived
with animals all my life, both domestic and wild. My first wild orphan, when
I was three years old, was a little antelope. So it’s been a lifelong passion
For information about The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, pictures of the
or to support the trust by ‘adopting’ one of the orphans, visit www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.
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