'Elephants teach us so much about family'

'Elephants teach us so much about family'
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Daphne Sheldrick’s pioneering work with orphaned elephants and rhinos has earned her many honours, including a Kenyan MBS (Moran of the Burning Spear) and a damehood. But as influential as her campaigning has been – inspiring people around the globe – one of Daphne’s greatest delights has been seeing generations of her own family taking up the same challenge.

The animal campaigner has dedicated more than 50 years of her life to caring for elephants. It all began in Kenya where her husband David was the first warden of the Tsavo National Park, and Daphne fell in love with the elephants that he cared for.

Daphne says it was these remarkable animals that helped her cope with David’s untimely death in 1977 and inspired her to set up the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) to continue his work.

Their daughter Jill worked closely with Daphne to establish the Trust, which also campaigns against poaching and the ivory trade. And now their younger daughter, Angela, is its executive director.

Angela felt it was only natural they should both follow in their mum’s footsteps. “Life with Mum meant a glorious childhood surrounded by a loving family, both two and four-legged. My own children have grown up in the bosom of the Trust and are also passionately committed to it.”

Elephants themselves set enormous store by family values, and Daphne’s admiration for their strength is evident: “They stoically face adversity and we draw our emotional stamina from that.

“In elephant society, the whole herd takes care of its youngest,” says Daphne (80). “They are much more caring than humans, even in infancy. But then, they have better powers of forgiveness, too.”

Angela agrees: “The most remarkable thing about elephants is their capacity for forgiveness. Orphans in our care have often seen their mothers killed or injured by humans yet they respond to the love and care of our keepers, trusting them in no time at all.”

But Daphne adds that forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting. “Elephants have incredibly complex emotions. Because they live in such close-knit herds, baby elephants suffer terrible sadness when family members die, especially mothers. They grieve apart from the rest of the herd for weeks, sometimes even months.”

This helps them to move on. “Each orphan finds the courage to focus on living,” says Daphne. “They welcome strangers and show compassion by gently touching them with their trunks.”

It was this compassion that Daphne found a great comfort after the death of her husband. And, in true elephant fashion, Daphne’s family have supported each other over the years, as well as their animal orphans.

It’s this family commitment that puts the Trust in good hands as it continues to grow, looking after many other injured wild animals. “Smaller orphans such as antelopes are now part of the family, giving my sons hands-on experience of raising animals too”, says Angela.

But the Trust will always be deeply indebted to Daphne’s pioneering work (she was the first to discover the perfect milk formula for raising orphaned elephants), which has changed how the world sees these extraordinary animals.

And yet there is still a long way to go. “We all have a role to play in protecting wildlife – particularly raising awareness of the poaching crisis,” says Daphne. “Public opinion is a powerful tool. People need to be informed if we expect them to help.

“Without their help elephants could be extinct in the wild in the next 15 years, which would be a tragedy. I would urge people to write to your government representatives, asking them to support anti-poaching initiatives. And, of course, never buy, sell or wear ivory or rhino horn.”

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So has there been a particular elephant that touched Daphne’s heart?

“When you have a child, see it every day and raise it from the moment it is born, you know the mind of that child,” she replies. “And it is the same with orphaned animals. Aisha will always be the most special for me. She was one of the smallest elephants I had ever seen, with soft fuzz and ears as pink as petals. She became my shadow, and we often had to put my apron over her head so I could run away and steal a few minutes by myself.”

No wonder Daphne’s family all follow in her footsteps. Like Aisha, they cannot bear to be without her. Long may their vital work continue.

How you can help make a difference:

  • The DSWT runs a scheme where you can foster an orphaned elephant. The money goes towards providing care and other Trust projects. It is run online, so please visit the DSWT website www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org or email rc-h@africaonline.co.ke for more details. The Trust also runs the iworry campaign to share information about the illegal ivory trade and what can be done to prevent poaching.
  • Visit www.iworry.org for more information.

Pictures © David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust