Damn. They say life goes on. And in my case, when I first heard Dame Daphne Marjorie Sheldrick, DBE (born 4 June, 1934) had passed away at age 83 from a longtime battle with breast cancer, it took me a while to realize that Ishanga, the orphaned elephant I sponsored in November, 2010 — rescued literally from the jaws of death after being surrounded by marauding lions in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park — is alive and well and repatriated back into the wild at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Ithumba Unit in Tsavo East.
Daphne Sheldrick may have lost her battle with cancer, but there are so many orphaned elephants — almost too many to count — that the Sheldrick Trust has nurtured back to health over the years and decades, thanks in large part to the many sponsors around the world who help with feeding and medical costs, that her spirit will survive for as long as there are wild elephants in Tsavo.
I’m not going to bang on much more about it here. I’ll leave that to others who knew her best, and those at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust on the outskirts of Nairobi National Park, home of the Kenya Wildlife Service — Kenyan-born armed rangers who every day put their lives on the line and wage war against ivory poachers in Kenya’s semi-arid thorn scrub bush and acacia grasslands with romantic names like Tsavo, Samburu, Meru, Amboseli and Nakuru. The Sheldrick Trust takes its name not from Daphne but from her late husband David, who was the founding park warden of Tsavo, one of the last truly wild protected wilderness areas on the entire continent of Africa, and without a doubt Kenya’s most rugged, wild and untrammelled park, a vast wilderness area so large, so dangerous and so genuinely wild that tourists only venture into those tiny pockets of pacified bush that skirt the Nairobi-to-Mombasa highway. These are true badlands, Kenya’s equivalent of Zakouma National Park in Chad or Gorongosa in Mozambique, where AK-47s are as common as bushbuck.
And yet those, like David and Daphne Sheldrick who lived there, soon fell under Tsavo’s spell.
Tsavo is where Denys Finch Hatton — played by Robert Redford in the Oscar-winning 1985 film Out of Africa — died after crashing his Gypsy Moth biplane in May, 1931, shortly after taking off from Voi, not far the Nairobi-Mombasa rail line that would famously become the site of the infamous “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” The man-eaters, a pair of uncommonly large, maneless male lions, killed 135 construction workers — the exact number is a matter of some debate — between March and December, 1898 and stopped construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in its tracks. literally. Tsavo has always been untamed.
David Sheldrick came to Kenya as an infant — he was born in Alexandria, Egypt; his father, who had served with the British Remounts in the First World War, settled in Kenya to establish a coffee farm — and died of a heart attack in 1977 at the relatively young age of 57. His widow Daphne created the Sheldrick Elephant Trust in his name.
David Sheldrick had served in the Second World War with the King’s African Rifles in Abyssinia, Ethiopia and then Burma. He was drawn to Tsavo’s rugged beauty and its reputation for unpredictability and sense of danger. It wasn’t long before Sheldrick saw the need for conservation and protection of the wilderness. Tsavo was home at the time to some of East Africa’s largest herds of wild elephants — it still is — but they were disappearing at a fast, and growing, rate. Illegal hunting and ivory poaching were rife, even in the early part of the 20th century.
Daphne Sheldrick recounts those early years in her 2012 memoir, Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story, and a portrait emerges, much as it does in Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Caputo’s hypnotic, addictive 2002 book Ghosts of Tsavo, not of an idealistic bunny-hugger but of a tough, uncompromising woman unafraid of using pithy language when she wanted it to stick, and who showed little fear whether facing a marauding lion, agitated elephant, bandits wielding automatic weapons — or an ill-informed writer visiting from North America with misplaced notions about cute animals and the supposed romanticism of post-colonial Africa.
I first learned of Daphne Sheldrick and the Sheldrick Trust from a 2006 segment of CBS’s 60 Minutes, as reported by the late, veteran war correspondent Bob Simon.
The publicity generated by Simon’s 60 Minutes piece wasn’t the reason the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi became a mandatory pit stop on the Nairobi tourist circuit, of course, but it played an incalculable role in introducing the very idea of an elephant orphanage to jaded TV viewers from all over the U.S. and Canada.
The Trust isn’t some misty-eyed vestige of post-colonial romanticism, either. One of Sheldrick’s greatest and most overlooked achievements was winning the trust, confidence and support of successive presidents of independent Kenya over the years, many of them veterans of Kenya’s protracted and often bloody struggle for independence from Britain. Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the son of Kenya’s founding father and co-leader of Kenya’s struggle for independence, Jomo Kenyatta.
Enough background. I leave it here with some of Daphne Sheldrick’s reflections and musings from over the years, in her own words. The grace, dignity and respect for nature’s wonder shines through in ways both subtle and profound, and always heartfelt.
“To be a baby elephant must be wonderful. Surrounded by a loving family 24 hours a day.... I think it must be how it ought to be, in a perfect world.”
“Animals are indeed more ancient, more complex, and in many ways more sophisticated than us. They are more perfect because they remain within Nature’s fearful symmetry, just as Nature intended. They should be respected and revered, but perhaps none more so than the elephant, the world's most emotionally human land mammal.”
“They, who have suffered so much at the hands of humans, never lose the ability to forgive, even though, being elephants, they will never be able to forget.”
“Life is for the living, not the dead, who belong to the past and are at peace and beyond all further pain and suffering 'somewhere in the great somewhere.”
— Daphne Sheldrick, 1934-2018.
Pumzika kwa amani.