Today I have a beautiful interview with Dame Daphne Sheldrick D.B.E, where she tells us all about the wonderful work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
I am obsessed with elephants so this was such an exciting and inspiring interview for me. I’m sure you’re going to learn lots below and fall in love with elephants, even more than you already do (and with the people who dedicate their lives to helping them)
When National Parks were first formed in Kenya in the late 40’s David Sheldrick, was approached to become the founding pioneer Park warden of the giant Tsavo National Park, larger than many countries!
This was a challenge in those times, a huge expanse of pristine wilderness with simply no infrastructure at all and over a span of 25 years he carved out a magnificent National Park, together with the able support of his assistant wardens. David was a famous naturalist whose untimely death in 1977 was felt throughout the conservation fraternity. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was formed in his memory by his friends and peers, to ensure that his conservation vision and ideals for Kenya’s wildlife could continue despite the loss of this extraordinary man.
Today, the DSWT is run by Angela Sheldrick, the daughter of David and Daphne, supported by her husband Robert Carr-Hartley and their two boys Taru and Roan, who are passionate about Kenya’s wildlife and eager to ensure that David and Daphne’s legacy continues.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick is the Chairperson of the Trust, which is now 40 years old and we caught up with to chat all things elephants!
MM: How many elephants have you helped?
DS: David raised the first young elephant orphans in the late 40’s and Daphne raised the first newborn infant elephant in the 70’s. Her efforts combined with our wonderful team of Keepers have given valuable life back to numerous babies who have suffered at the hands of humans through mostly poaching and human wildlife conflict. Today, the DSWT has successfully rescued and hand reared over 200 infant orphaned elephants. More than 100 of these elephants have reintegrated back into the wild, living a fully independent wild life.
Aside from rescuing, hand-rearing and reintegrating orphaned elephants, we operate four Mobile Vet Units in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service. These Units alleviate the suffering of any injured wild animal and to date, and treated more than 1,000 injured elephants.
MM: Have you always loved or had an affinity with elephants?
DS: Not only elephants – since I was a child I have loved all animals both domestic and wild
MM: How do you help elephants?
We are proud to lead a multi-faceted and holistic approach to protect all wildlife including elephants.
DS: At present, elephants face challenges that threaten the species survival. As a field focused organisation, we work on the ground (and in the skies) to keep herds safe through initiatives that include:
Aerial and foot patrols through our Aerial Surveillance and 10 DSWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Teams which protect wild elephant herds from threats including bushmeat, ivory poaching, and human-wildlife conflict. These teams patrol hundreds of kilometres every month, following up on community intelligence about illegal activities, tracking and arresting poachers and confiscating snares.
These brave field teams are supported by our Canine Unit, comprised of three fully trained sniffer dogs and their experienced handlers who are ready to leap into action to take down poachers.
We also work in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service to alleviate the suffering of any injured wild animal. Through four fully equipped Units, we have treated elephants injured by poachers and through cases of human-wildlife conflict.
We also safeguard key areas of biodiversity and habitats home to elephants and other animals ensuring they have a safe place to roam. This is a much overlooked area but vitally important; once we save the elephants from poachers, and we will, we need to ensure they have a home to live in – one that hasn’t been converted for agriculture or irreplaceably damaged through resource extraction like charcoal burning or logging.
But we’re best known for our work to rescue orphan infant elephants. On call every day of the year, we travel throughout Kenya to rescue orphaned elephants and rhinos left alone with no hope of survival. Many of the orphans rescued are victims of poaching and human-wildlife conflict and are in a terrible state of emaciation and distress. Through the rapid deployment of a Rescue Team, transported via air or ground, we give orphaned infant elephants the very best chance of survival.
After each orphan rescue, a long and complex process of rehabilitation begins at our Nursery nestled within the Nairobi National Park. For milk-dependent elephant calves it is here, during this crucial phase, where they are cared for and healed both emotionally and physically by our dedicated team of elephant Keepers. These loving human Keepers, born into local communities throughout Kenya, take on the demanding role and responsibility of becoming each orphan’s adopted family during their rehabilitation until the elephants choose to return back to a life in the wild.
MM: What are their specific needs?
DS: Milk: Each elephant orphan requires a specialist milk formula to survive and grow into a healthy adult. It is vital the Nursery babies have up to 36 pints of milk each day whilst the older elephant orphans require milk up to the age of 4-5 years. The need for milk is essential for the elephant orphans and this continued requirement totals over 450 gallons daily across all four Units. With 76 orphaned elephants in our care right now, it is crucial we have the correct amount of milk formula available for any new arrivals.
Blankets: In the cold mornings in Nairobi National Park and without their mother and protective herd by their side, young orphaned elephants are vulnerable to nature’s elements.
At their young age, the elephants need full time protection, not just from poachers and predators, but from the wind, rain, cold and hot sun during the heat of the day. This is exactly what the blankets provide. Highly susceptible to pneumonia, without the protection of their fluffy blankets, the cold could claim the lives of many orphaned elephants.
As well as providing protection and warmth for the young elephants, blankets play another crucial role. Bottle feeding a baby elephant is not quite as easy as you may think as they rely on their mother for reassurance and a place to rest their trunk while feeding. But this habit has been recreated thanks to some larger blankets. Hung up in the stockades or out in forest, the blankets may not appear to be fooling anyone but the orphans are reassured by this stand-in mother, and those hesitant to accept milk can be comforted.
MM: What are the biggest challenges associated with caring for elephants?
DS: Raising a baby elephant is a full time commitment, very often more challenging than raising one’s own children. All young elephants are extremely fragile, not least when they are still milk dependent and have experienced being orphaned or seen their mother killed. For any rescue, the first few weeks for any young elephant orphan are always critical as orphaned elephants learn to adapt to their new surroundings, if they are emaciated or dehydrated, we must slowly build their condition in a way that is safe for the orphan and help them slowly come to terms with the loss of their mother. For some elephants, this means letting them grieve during their recovery path whilst making sure that they feel part of our family and herd.
MM: What do the Keepers do on a day to day basis?
DS: We have trained Keepers/carers who predominately care for the elephants and this means getting up at six in the morning to let the babies out of the stables, which they sleep in for warmth and protection (with a Keeper on a bunk above), wrap any of the youngest babies in blankets (as mornings in Nairobi can be very cold) and head out into the forest. Much of the day is spent walking and browsing, with milk feeds throughout the day. For some of the new arrivals, this means hanging up blankets on tree branches to mimic the stomach of their lost mother that they would have otherwise rested their trunks on for comfort when feeding.
At midday, the orphans have a mud bath during which, we have a one hour visiting session from the public who stand behind a cordon to watch the mud mayhem and learn about the project. Then it’s back to the bush for more feeding, browsing and walking before bedtime at 6pm. Each orphan has a Keeper that will sleep in their stable at night on rotation; this means there is always someone present to comfort the elephants and feed the youngest throughout the night, but prevents a baby becoming too attached to any one of their carers.
MM: What makes elephants so special do you think?
DS: Elephants inspire a sense of awe among so many that have the opportunity to see them, and considering how these animals grow so large, they are inherently gentle and tender. They display all of the good traits of humans, but few of the bad and can read one’s heart with amazing powers of perception. Importantly, they have an amazing ability to forgive. Many of the orphans in our care have witnessed the death of their mother at the hand of humans, and yet in the fullness of time, they allow other humans, our Keepers, to become their family and express nothing but love for their keepers.
MM: Can you tell me any fascinating facts about elephants?
DS: Elephants have a powerful memory and never forget. The orphans will even recognize people they have known fleetingly in the nursery, selecting those who have cared most for them, and paying them the most attention.
One orphan we hand raised was Sobo, found alone by the side of her dead mother. One day when walking out with the herd with David, Sobo suddenly made an excited trumpet and to our amazement, she rushed towards a wild herd as fast as her legs could carry her. It was a group from her past, and she was obviously well known to them. Trunks intertwined, fondling and feeling they rumbled lovingly and among them aunts and possibly sisters and brothers. As the herd moved off, she went with them showing they never forget one another.
Every time nursery elephants are being moved from Nairobi to one of our three Reintegration Units in Tsavo, the ex-orphans in those areas mysteriously somehow know, and return to the Unit awaiting their arrival.
How they know this is one of those mysterious elephant mysteries that will never be fathomed by us humans. But it happens every time, even if the newcomers have never met any of the ex-orphans before, and even when the date of the move happens to change, and we have been unable to inform the keepers at the other end. Somehow, the ex-orphans always know.
Each elephant decides when it is sufficiently confident to make the transition to a wild life, encouraged by the ex-orphans, some of whom will turn up in a splinter group to escort a newcomer off for a “night out.” If during the course of the night, the newcomer decides he or she wants to return to the custody of the human family, one or two of the ex-orphans will escort the youngster back to the stockades and hand him or her over to the keepers again.
MM: Amazing! Do you have any favourite elephant stories or experiences from your time spent with them?
DS: There are many incredible stories which we love to share through our fostering program, as each orphan is unique, with a dramatic rescue story, and very often with a hero in the story who went to extreme lengths to save these unfortunate orphans. It is these stories of communities, men and women, behind the rescues that are so compelling.
In the old days few orphans were rescued, not necessarily because there was no poaching, but simply because people did not care, or know what to do and often communities chose to kill them for meat. We have seen an enormous shift in awareness throughout Kenya, with communities and tribal people going to great lengths and sacrifice to save the life of an orphaned baby. We see the best in people and the worst. The worst being those capable of such cruelty to kill these magnificent creatures, and all the destruction and loss and heartbreak in the wake of each of these deaths, and the worst too in those humans who fuel the demand with their insatiable need for an ivory trinket, which let’s face it, we can all live without – and then the best in those many unsung heroes, very often extremely materially poor people, whose efforts have been the reason these babies in our care are afforded a second chance to grow up, and know the joy of family again, and with any luck, assuming the world comes to its senses, grow old.
MM: Can you tell us about the phenomenon of elephants returning to introduce their calves to the keepers who raised them?
DS: For any orphan we take into our care at our Nursery that has lost their family, our Keepers take over the role as care giver and act as their surrogate family. By spending 24/7 with the orphans at our Nursery and then the Reintegration Units as they learn how to live as wild elephants, they build remarkably strong bonds that in many instances, do not fade over time, even when an elephant chooses to return to the wild.
Every year, old friends return to their former Keepers and the Reintegration Units to say hello and take advantage of the water points we keep filled up. This is indicative of the love and trust they have for the human Keepers who represented their alternative human family after being rescued in early infancy. Every orphan that has returned with their new calf has been a Nursery-reared orphan and it is a touching meaningful accolade from the elephants themselves, and their way of saying ‘thank you’ for offering them a second chance of life and even more importantly a quality of life in the wild when grown.
In fact, there is little more rewarding than watching these young infants heal both physically and psychologically and in the fullness of time join wild herds down in Tsavo where we have our orphan relocation units, to live a wild life again, with the chance to experience their own family once more.
MM: You have stated that elephants are ‘just like us but better’. What does that mean?
DS: All animals are intelligent in fascinating ways, but elephants are “human” animals in terms of emotion, and in many other ways as well, encompassed by an invisible and mystical aura that reaches deep into the human soul in a mysterious way that defies human logic.
Having known them intimately through infancy and childhood into their teenage years and even well beyond, we know they share the same emotions as ourselves with a strong sense of family and the same sense of death. They grieve and they mourn, just as we do at the loss of a loved one and that they shed tears and suffer depression. Each has an individual personality just like us; they can be mischievous, playful, hold a grudge or feel slighted.
In many ways they are better than us and they have attributes that we humans lack, such as the ability to communicate over distance using low range sound hidden to human ears, telepathic capabilities as well as being sensitive to seismic sound through their feet.
Elephants are much more caring than us humans, even in infancy. All comfort and care for those younger. They have better powers of forgiveness than us humans, despite “never forgetting,” which in elephants happens to be true. They are much more welcoming of strangers. All the orphans instantly embrace and love any newcomer, showing caring and compassion by gently touching them with their trunks.
MM: What are your dreams for the charities future?
DS: Never in the early days could we have imagined what the Trust would become, and been able to achieve thanks to a very strong team here in Kenya, UK and the USA, and a wonderfully impassioned and committed global public that make all that we do possible. Looking ahead we plan to preserve and protect as much wild country as possible so that the indigenous wildlife that have evolved and belong there can recover and proliferate.
MM: What can we do to help?
DS: There are so many ways for people to help. One of the most impactful and immediate is to bring an elephant into their lives or to gift an orphan elephant to a loved one. This is possible through our digital fostering program. For an elephant, family is everything. Our foster program allows people around the world to adopt an elephant in our care and received updates on ‘their’ baby, should they visit Kenya, they would even be able to visit their baby elephant if he/she was still at our Nursery and had not reintegrated back into the wild. It costs just $50 a year, yet that donation goes an enormous way in enabling us to rescue orphans in need and to provide them with a human-elephant family as they grow. You can join our foster program at: http://thedswt.org/foster
Social media also provides an invaluable tool in the global effort to save elephants.People need to be aware of what is happening if they are to be able to help. We actively use Instagram @dswt, Facebook #thedswt and Twitter #dswt to communicate our work to save elephants, to engage people in what we are doing and encourage them to become part of the solution. These tools help us to educate as to the realities of the ivory trade, which is decimating elephant populations and the fact that, every piece of ivory represents a dead elephant. We urge people to use their social channels to share our stories and their own stories about elephants, help us remind people in a world of material things and fast paced living, that our natural world is the most beautiful and magical world, one that we are a part of and if we do not act to protect, we do not only lose it, we will lose a part of ourselves.
People can also help give a voice to elephants through our iworry campaign (www.iworry.org) which seeks to secure a ban on all ivory sales, not only internationally, but domestic markets too. So we urge people to join us in calling on political leaders to take action for elephants, and together, our voices can and do get heard. And we would certainly encourage all those reading this feature to share it far and wide, let’s seek to ensure that people are not just talking about elephants, they are recognizing that each of us has a role to play in their future and each of us will suffer in some form should we allow this species to disappear.
Connect with DSWT
Foster an elephant at: http://thedswt.org/foster