David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

World Elephant Day: a day of remembrance for the animal that never forgets.

“The concept of conservation is a far truer sign of civilization than that spoilation of a continent which we once confused with progress,” the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen once wrote. “We have outsmarted ourselves, like greedy monkeys, and now we are full of dread.”

Matthiessen, as might be expected, was an admirer of elephants.

That’s worth remembering on this World Elephant Day — today, more than most days.

“Of all African animals, the elephant is the most difficult for man to live with, yet its passing — if this must come — seems the most tragic of all,” Matthiessen wrote in his 1972 classic of Africa, The Tree Where Man Was Born.

“I can watch elephants, and elephants alone, for hours at a time, for sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked grey visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.”

It is one of my favourite quotes, of which there are many, and others of which Matthiessen can claim pride of place.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“This world is painted on a wild dark metal,” he wrote in Shadow Country.

And this, from The Snow Leopard, but which can just as easily apply to elephants and their facility for memory:

“Only the enlightened can recall their former lives; for the rest of us, the memories of past existences are but glints of light, twinges of longing, passing shadows, disturbingly familiar, that are gone before they can be grasped:

“Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders.”

“The equatorial monsoons which brought a rainy season to the coasts had small effect here in the highlands, from moon to moon, the rainfall varied little,” Matthiessen wrote in Under the Mountain Wall. “Winter, summer, autumn, spring were involuted, turning in upon themselves, a slow circling of time.”

Only time will tell how many more years elephants will live in the wild to see World Elephant Day.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Elephant numbers are estimated to have dropped by 62% during the past decade. Roughly 400,000 remain — a very rough figure — and 100 a day killed each day, today and every day, by illegal hunters to feed the insatiable ivory trade. 

“Days and months are the travellers of eternity,” Matthiessen once said. “So. . . .”


Images courtesy of Pixabay/COO Creative Commons.

“Life is for the living, not the dead.” — Dame Daphne Sheldrick 1934-2018

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.

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

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 Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

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.

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

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.

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

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.

Daphne Sheldrick with 'Wendie,' May, 2011.  ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Daphne Sheldrick with 'Wendie,' May, 2011.  ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

“Ethical animal encounters” not just PC — they're also the only way to go.

Animals bring out the worst in people. Just spend an afternoon at the local zoo and watch how bored parents let their children — encourage them, even — to tease the animals, scream , jump up and down and even throw food at them. I’ve often thought, while visiting a zoo, that the worst thing about zoos is the people who visit them. (Don’t blame zoo staff. Zoo operators like money, and like most money-making operations, they’ve figured out that the secret to happiness is to hire as few people as possible and pay them as little as possible, with the result that what staff do remain are overworked and underpaid.)


Zoos themselves are not about to go away. As mass extinctions look more probable with each passing day, zoos will become even more important, if only as a last stand for critically endangered animals like Asiatic lions and Sumatran tigers. Most accredited zoos keep an official record of their specimens’ gene pools — “stud books” — for future breeding programs, often in cooperation with other zoos.


©Anandabazar Patrika

©Anandabazar Patrika


That said, more travellers are becoming interested in actual animal encounters in exotic destinations, whether it’s swimming with dolphins in Hawaii or riding elephant-back in Zimbabwe.


The issue of ethical animal encounters, both in the wild and in captive situations, has jumped to the fore of late, and it’s easy to see why.


As our daily lives become more frantic and urbanized, more and more of us are reaching out to wilderness areas — and the creatures who live there — in hopes of reawakening a part of our own natural-history DNA.


That has inevitably led to money-making schemes involving captive and semi-captive animals, everything from “lion walks” with lion cubs in South Africa — who more often than not are being raised to be killed in canned hunts, “bred for the bullet,” as the animal advocacy group Blood Lions labels it — to baiting wild animals with food, whether it’s Japanese macaques who frequent Nagano’s hot springs or semi-wild leopards on privately owned game reserves scattered throughout southern Africa.





There’s a growing interest, though, in genuine ethical animal encounters, in which everyone from tourists to nature photographers are encouraged to experience true wilderness, and leave behind as light a footprint as possible.


Make no mistake: This is not a trend, as much as we wish it were otherwise. It’s more like the germ of an idea marketed to a niche group of green-minded world travellers who pride themselves on being informed and tend to vote based on environmental concerns, whether it’s ecological sustainability or concern over climate change.


The travel site TripAdvisor — a partner with the equally high-profile travel-booking site Expedia — recently vowed to de-list resorts, vacation spots and tour operators who exploit captive and semi-captive animals for financial gain.


Nature magazines and travel periodicals are jumping behind the idea, too, from Getaway Magazine and the travel site Go2Africa to Africa Geographic.




It’s not always easy to know upfront what’s appropriate about animal encounters, especially when all one has to go one is a slick brochure or an eye-catching website. I’m not fond of lists as a rule — they tend to be facile, misleading and downright unhelpful at times — but one of the great side-benefits of many of the articles that have appeared in the environmental press lately have been easy-to-read pointers, do’s and don’t's aimed at the reader who’s short on time but still keen to learn the facts.


Some go as far as to recommend certain attractions and activities over others. And while that sounds fraught with peril for potential abuse — who knows who’s in bed with whom; not everyone knows that TripAdvisor is married to Expedia, for example — they at least get people thinking about the right questions to ask.


I’ve curated a few highlights here that I happen to agree with, or have had personal experience of. For a solid, tmore horough breakdown of the issues involved, do check out the article written by South African lifestyle blogger Kathryn Rossiter at Becoming You (BecomingYou.co.za):




Yes, a lot of this is obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense.


Just because something is obvious, though, doesn’t mean it isn't worth repeating. We could all use a gentle reminder every now and then.


The best encounters are the ones that nurture our fascination with the natural world, on the natural world’s own terms.


There’s a difference, for example, between learning how to free dive, so one can explore the sea on one’s own, and going shark diving in a cage, where the sharks are lured by chum bait. (There’s a growing belief that shark-diving operations that lure sharks with bait have inadvertently led to an increase in shark attacks at nearby beaches. It may be scientifically unproven, but it certainly seems logical.)


Avoid any encounter where animals are forced to touch you, whether it’s a tiger cub at a Buddhist temple in Thailand (open, then closed, then reopened) or a captive dolphin at a five-star resort on the French Polynesian island of Moorea.


Be mindful that you’re the intruder; once you’ve gone home, they have to live with the effects of whatever it is you’ve done.




Some animal advocates even recommend that people actively discourage curious animals from touching them, by squirting monkeys with a water bottle for example, or by rolling up the car windows around a curious bear.


Again, this seems obvious, but gentle reminders are always helpful.


Beware big cat sanctuaries that claim to release their cats back into the wild. The plain truth is that once an apex predator has been habituated to being around people, it can never be released — ever. Period. Genuine big cat sanctuaries are careful to keep their releasable cats far away from people before releasing them; every staff interaction, such as feeding the cats and veterinary interventions, is kept to a minimum, and done at a distance.


Paid volunteer programs sound good in principle, but again it’s a good idea to think ahead and do as much reading as possible.


There are two schools of thought here. One is that so-called “animal ambassadors” — unreleasable animals ostensibly used for school meet-and-greets and other public-relations purposes — should be barred altogether, as it’s unethical to pull an animal out of its family just for teaching purposes.





I’ve seen it the other way, though. I know of one respected NGO in Namibia that used a cheetah ambassador for many years. The cheetah in question was the runt of a litter, and very sickly when the mother and her cubs were caught in a gin trap on a neighbouring farm and dropped off at the cheetah refuge. The NGO director wanted to release the mother and cubs back into the wild as soon as possible, before they became too habituated to people. It would have taken too long to wait until the sickly cub recovered, though. On the other hand, releasing the cub back into the wild with its family would have been tantamount to a death sentence.


Was it right or fair for the NGO to keep the cub and raise it to adulthood, knowing that it could never be released back into the wild? Would it have been preferable to euthanize the sick cub, or release it knowing that it would die a slow and painful death? Again, there are no easy answers.


Those are the kinds of question any would-be volunteer should be considering, though.


Some animal advocacy groups hold that tourist paid volunteer programs be banned entirely.


The argument holds that only qualified volunteers, whether zoologists, field biologists or veterinarian trainees, should be allowed to volunteer at wildlife sanctuaries.





Then again, the hard reality is that there’s plenty of “grunt work” at animal sanctuaries — clearing bush, filling in holes under wire fences under the broiling hot African sun, etc. — that doesn’t necessitate physical interaction with animals, but which helps sustain conservation efforts just the same.


Would you spend two weeks of a paid vacation clearing thorn bushes or filling holes in dirt to help save the world’s remaining population of wild cheetahs? Those are the kinds of questions would-be volunteers need to be asking themselves.


For more background on ethical animal interactions, volunteering at animal sanctuaries, docheck out the Facebook pages of Volunteers in Africa Beware (https://www.facebook.com/volunteersbeware/?fref=ts), Blood Lions (https://www.facebook.com/BloodLionsOfficial/?fref=ts) and the conservation NGO website WildlifeAct.com.





A family-oriented, small-scale NGO called Green Girls in Africa (greengirlsinafrica.com) has come up with an animals’ bill of rights — five pointers, for domestic and wild animals alike — to weigh when considering any animal encounters.


The site itself features thought-provoking posts with headings like, “Debunking the many myths of lion cub petting,” and “to pet or not to pet,” and is worth a visit.


Green Girls in Africa’s “Five Freedoms for Animals”:


    1    Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour

    2    Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area

    3    Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment

    4    Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind

    5    Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering


• For what it’s worth, Nairobi’s world-renowned Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Giraffe Manor — also in Kenya — and organized gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda top many lists of ethical animal encounters.


©Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust



This post is by no means all-encompassing, nor does it even scratch the surface of available information. It’s a start, though. The best information is always that which you find on your own.














Poorer nations doing more than their affluent cousins to protect large mammals.

Where special requirements meet spacial requirements, it’s the poorer countries that do more for the conservation of large mammals, not the wealthy western nations.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a recent survey by the respected Panthera organization, a respected NGO renowned for the scientific study of the world’s remaining big cats, and Oxford University.
Of course, one can say that the world’s remaining critically endangered large mammals — from rhinos and elephants to lions, leopards and cheetahs — are more apt to be found in African countries than those in the northern hemisphere.
Even so the idea that, say, Tanzania has done more for its indigenous wildlife — in terms of setting aside wide open spaces for the animals to roam— than the U.S., which is considering removing protections from several national monuments, many of them established under Barack Obama, is not just sobering but worrying to anyone who cares about the planet.

©Save the Rhino

©Save the Rhino

Recent surveys show that 59% of the world’s remaining predators and 60% of the world’s largest herbivores are facing extinction square-in-the-face.
You can argue the numbers if you want, but some truths are obvious to anyone willing to look past next quarter’s profit statements.
Large herbivores like rhinos and elephants need large spaces in which to find enough water and food to sustain them. Rhinos have a gestation period of 16 months, and only give birth to one calf at a time; it’s easy to see how their numbers could dwindle rapidly in a relatively short period of time, even without the recent spike in poaching that has seen their numbers crash in just the past five years.

@Save the Rhino

@Save the Rhino

Apex predators such as lions and tigers need both space to find enough prey animals to hunt, but also find suitable mates that are genetically diverse enough that inbreeding doesn’t become a problem.
Naturally, the bigger or more dangerous the animal, the harder it can be for people in the area to live with them. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where towns, villages and big cities rub up against ecologically sensitive wilderness. Carnivores and herbivores alike can and often do pose a direct risk to human life, crops and livestock.
Panthera researchers created a “megafauna conservation index” in which to measure 152 countries, based on three factors: the percentage of land occupied by large species; the percentage of that land set aside for protected, officially recognized conservation areas; and the amount of money spent by each country on conservation, relative to that country’s GDP.
Interestingly — crazily, you might say — African countries in general make more effort toward the conservation of large mammals than any other region on the planet, despite facing, in many cases, poverty and social instability, whether caused by drought, famine, flooding, tribal conflict, war or bad governance.

©Save the Rhino

©Save the Rhino

Of the five top performing nations, four are in Africa: Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Yes, Zimbabwe.
There’s a lot of negative reportage about conservation efforts around the world, and with good reason: The planetary environment is a mess, and the current U.S. administration is going to do little to change that.
Even so, the Panthera survey found small but bright beacons of hope. The survey isn’t just an exercise in numbers crunching: Researchers sought to find out why the top-performing countries are doing as well as they are in the battle to save the planet’s remaining megafauna.



These beacons of hope include “rewilding” of landscapes, by reintroducing large mammals to areas where they had disappeared — the desert-adapted rhinos and elephants of Damaraland in northwestern Namibia, for example, or Kenya’s recent reintroduction of critically endangered rhinos into Lake Nakuru and Nairobi national parks.
Other beacons of hope include setting aside more land as protected areas — in other words, the exact opposite of what the current U.S. administration is considering — and investing more in conservation, both at home and abroad. (Germany and the U.K., despite facing ecological and environmental pressures of their own at home, have always punched above their weight overseas; many of the most pro-active conservation organizations in Kenya and Tanzania are financed in large part from northern Europe.)

©World Wildlife Fund/Jacques Flamand

©World Wildlife Fund/Jacques Flamand

Yes, planet Earth is a mess right now — there’s no way top sugarcoat it — but as the Panthera survey points out, and as Jane Goodall keeps saying, there’s reason for hope.

More information about the Panthera-Oxford study can be found here, and by following Panthera on Twitter at @PantheraCats:


Elephant rescue shows good, bad side of human intervention

It’s one of those increasingly rare feel-good news stories: A baby elephant baby is trapped in a waterhole, and game rangers with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the good people of  the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust set it  free it so it can be reunited with its mom.

All ends well. In a part of Africa rife with poaching and human-wildlife conflict this is one story, at least, with a happy ending.

The Daily Mail’s online video has gone viral, and small wonder.

The problem with the constant litany of climate-change warnings and disaster stories is that, after a while, the average person feels numbed.

Numbness can lead to a kind of fatalism: I can’t do anything, so why should I bother? If another mass extinction is inevitable, as some scientists are now saying, why even try to stop it?

Ele orphans follow their minder into Nairobi National Park for the day at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Photo ©Alex Strachan

Ele orphans follow their minder into Nairobi National Park for the day at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Photo ©Alex Strachan

Except that, as the Sheldrick elephant trust and orphanage inside  Nairobi National Park prove every day, small, individual battles can be won along the way.

If you can look past the low-res, grainy image of this video — and if you can overlook the typically trite music (silence would've been better) — there’s much here’s that’s instructive. The elephants are clearly distressed by the helicopter’s rotor blades and clouds of dust kicked up. The mother ele has no way of knowing the rescuers are there to help. The baby is terrified, not least because it’s trapped and can’t get away from the noise.

The rescue is hard on the rescuers, too, because they know the stress they’re creating, even though it’s in a good cause.

The truth is that helicopters are expensive to fly and even more expensive to maintain. The reality, though, is that large stretches of wild Africa are vast, so vast that the only effective way to see what’s going on — and counter poaching — is from the air. It’s sheer luck that the game rangers happened on the trapped baby, and even more lucky, for the elephants, that these human intruders know what they’re doing. The Kenya Wildlife Service has done this before and will probably have to do it again.

A lot can go wrong — but it doesn’t.

At the end of the day, this was one for the victory column.

A cynic might say the baby elephant will fall down an actual well the next time, or get nailed by lions or, worse, witness its mom fall to a poacher.

It's  just as possible it will live to a long, ripe old age, though, and pass along its experience to younger elephants in later years. Elephants have long memories, after all.