Life has been interesting for Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who has mothered orphaned elephants, aided establish Kenya’s huge Tsavo National Park, and campaigned against poaching for years.
Now, the 80-year-old veteran conservationist has opened up for the first time about the events that have made her life among the elephants so special, even if they aren’t all about elephants.
‘We had a wonderful relationship with Geri, a Thompson gazelle,’ says Dame Daphne, who still resides in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Tea for two: Baby elephant Aisha snuggles up to Daphne as she attempts to pour herself a cup of tea
Adorable: Daphne relaxes outside her home with an orphaned rhino calf (left) and a baby buffalo (right)
She was plucked from the Kitengela plains outside Nairobi when her mother was murdered for bush meat. Geri, who spent her early childhood being hand-reared in Angela Daphne’s house, eventually grew up to be a cherished pet.
When the little gazelle was seized by a lioness while sitting on a daybed on Angela’s veranda, it seemed as if tragedy would strike. ‘Geri, who was still in the lioness’s mouth,’ says Daphne.
‘She was screaming like a banshee, which proved too much for the pride, so they aba.n.doned their ki.l.l but not before Geri was quite literally shredded.
It never occurred to me that Geri would ever be able to get over this attack, but she was rushed to the vet and stitched up, with my 15-year-old grandson Taru, her favorite person.
‘”But the worst of it was over and done with the following weeks and months, as Geri revived through tender loving care from everyone. It was her unwavering devotion and loyalty to the family that was quite humbling.”
But little Geri isn’t the only animal Daphne and Angela have taken into their homes and hearts over the years. From gazelles to elephants and even rhinos, all have been welcomed into Daphne’s life, with many later finding permanent homes in the 9,000sqkm Tsavo National Park, which was founded in the 1960s with the help of Daphne and her husband, David.
The existence of the park remains one of Daphne’s proudest achievements. ‘I had rewarding life with David, my late husband,’ she remembers.
It was really amazing to build Tsavo National Park from scratch using virgin bush for so many years.
‘But seeing my children and grandchildren’s love for the natural world and their commitment to the David Sheldrake Wildlife Trust and our work is the most rewarding – knowing that the legacy of all we have worked towards will continue long after I am gone.’
Unfortunately, Daphne and her family’s work has grown to be more stressful than ever before, due largely to the increasing poa.c.hing fueled by demand for rhino horn and ivory from China and the Far East.
‘It’s all the same stuff,’ Daphne fumes. ‘The ridiculous hype surrounding rhino horn is fueled by false propaganda from those seeking to profit from the sale of rhino horn and false claims about its healing abilities or consequences.’
Elephants are also being exterminated, with six of them, including four calves, mur.d.ered on Daphne’s doorstep in Tsavo East National Park last month.
The worsening situation has put the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s orphan program under a lot of strain, with Daphne confessing to being concerned where it would all end.
‘If I could choose a species to raise, it probably wouldn’t be elephants,’ she confesses. ‘Getting so attached to these extraordinary animals and then having to deal with all the trauma and heartbreak over the years has been very difficult to bear.
It’s very distressing to witness poachers in action, as we do, and to see the elephants endure such agony.
‘You may think that you’re doing all you can, but more often than not, it just isn’t enough. It’s ludicrous to me that we should choose to kill a species as wonderful and clever as ours just to make trinkets.’
Despite her heartbreak, Daphne maintains that she could not imagine life any other way and that she hopes people will come together to help combat wildlife crime.
‘I adore all animals,’ she explains. ‘Many people believe that elephants are my favorite animal species, but there are other species I like. Apart from big cats, I’ve raised practically every type of creature imaginable throughout the years, and they’ve all been amazing.’
Not quite as remarkable, you might think, as Daphne herself.