At the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya, nobody has ever used a bullhook or a million-volt electrical prod. The very idea would be unthinkable.
Daphne Sheldrick, 80 years old today, founded the orphanage in 1977 in memory of her husband, David. (Together, they had already helped create Kenya’s famous Tsavo National Park – one of the last refuges for elephant, rhinos and other endangered wildlife.)
The orphanage, now run by daughter Angela, has raised hundreds of baby elephants whose mothers had been stolen by zoo and circus owners or killed by poachers, ivory traders, subsistence farmers and wealthy hunters.
When the babies arrive at the sanctuary, they’re invariably suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress. Gradually, these sensitive youngsters bond with their new “mothers” – the sanctuary staff who feed them, play with them and sleep with them.
When they’re fully recovered and ready to leave the orphanage – which can take anywhere from five to seven years – they’re released into protected wildlife areas where they become part of one of the remaining elephant herds. (Often, when their adoptive herd is passing by the sanctuary, they’ll stop by to say a quick hello. After all, elephants never forget the loving care they’ve received.)
Caring for baby elephants is no easy task. Since a calf depends on her mother’s milk for at least the first two years of her life, one of Daphne’s earliest challenges was to develop the right milk formula for her charges – a careful mixture of human baby formula and coconut.
Daphne’s life has been devoted to orphaned animals of all kinds – from big cats to rhinos to zebras to ostriches. But elephants are her ultimate passion. As she describes it:
“Getting so attached to these extraordinary animals and having to deal with all the trauma and heartbreak over the years has been very difficult to bear.
“Seeing poaching in action, as we do, and seeing the suffering elephants experience is extremely painful.
“More often than not, you feel as if your best efforts just aren’t enough. It’s frankly illogical to me that we should choose to kill a species so intelligent and so beautiful just to create trinkets.”
Here’s a glimpse into the extraordinary work of the people who become family to the orphans until they’re ready to join a protected herd.
An excellent article by Charles Siebert in National Geographic captures the triumphs and tribulations of life at the sanctuary:
We walk over to the stable marked Murka—the orphan that had been found with a spear lodged in her head. “Now look at her,” Daphne says, as Murka, with only the slightest indent in her forehead to show for her brutal ordeal, approaches the half-opened door of her stable and takes two of my fingers to suckle on. “The vets didn’t expect her to make it through the first night.”
“And she’s healed psychologically,” Angela adds. “She was one extremely traumatized little elephant when she first woke up, lashing out at everyone—and rightly so. But slowly she began to trust again, and after about a month she wasn’t just fine about people, she was seeking them out. And it wasn’t just our doing. She would never have recovered so quickly without the input of other elephants.”
Daphne’s book – Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story – is here. And there’s much more about the orphanage at the website of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where you can donate to this remarkable work.