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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Dame Daphne Sheldrick and the Half Century Struggle to Save the Elephants of Kenya.

A mother elephant staggers forward, arrows protruding from her flank and legs, poison coursing through her blood that is attacking her muscles and making every step ahead an exercise in pure chemical agony. She has been shot by a team of poachers who need simply wait until she collapses from the pain in order to descend upon her still living form en masse, and rip the valuable ivory tusks from her face to sell to an Asian market that will fashion them into trinkets.

She is fortunate in one respect only - her death comes in the 1970s, when poachers were limited by available technology to the murder of one animal at a time. Subsequent decades brought machine-gun wielding strike teams to the Kenyan wilderness which indiscriminately destroyed entire families in a matter of minutes, such that by 1990 the elephant population that had once stood at two hundred and seventy thousand individuals was reduced to less than twenty thousand.

For sixty long, weary years it was the self-appointed task of one married couple to stand against the slaughter and fight with all their resourcefulness and compassion against a boundlessly cruel system which offered them repeated, grizzly failures of such pervasive scope that cynicism and surrender would have been forgiven them. But Daphne and David Sheldrick did not give in to the crush of the world's deadly greed. Stationed at the Tsavo National Park they fought the fathomless resources of a global market and corruption on seemingly every level of government and administration to Do Something, to fight the poachers in the field and care for their victims at home, ultimately raising the consciousness of the world to the rapacious destruction wrought by its immoderate appetites, and ever so slowly turning the vicious vector of history towards our better instincts.

Daphne Jenkins (1934-2018) was born in Kenya to a family of British extraction who had hacked a semi-prosperous farm from the arid landscape some generations before her birth, and her youth represented a combustive mix of personal intellectual development amid political turmoil as tensions between the descendants of white settlers and the native population escalated, reaching their height in the Mau Mau Revolution (1952-1960) that resulted in the death of some eleven thousand individuals.

She would be at the heart of these struggles for independence in the future, but as she approached the end of her high school years a more personal choice faced Daphne Jenkins. She was a good student with a promising aptitude for science, and had won a scholarship to attend university, but to do so would require leaving Kenya and the nature she so dearly loved. She decided in favor of Kenya, studying secretarial skills in Nairobi while falling in love with a handsome wildlife enthusiast by the name of Bill Woodley, whom she married in 1953, just weeks after her nineteenth birthday.

Bill was part of a small team tasked with the enormous job of organizing the massive Tsavo National Park into something that protected and studied the animal species living there while creating responsible safari opportunities to bring in much needed revenue. In charge of this mammoth effort was a dynamic, movie-handsome ex British Rifles veteran named David Sheldrick who boasted an encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife and a gift for Getting Things Done that verged on the super-heroic. Rugged and competent but also capable of deep empathy for the struggles of the animals under his care, he was a magnetic figure whose passion for fighting back against the carnage wrought on the native elephant and rhino populations was contagious.

Daphne put her secretarial and organizational skills to work, organizing the system that kept track of the poacher intel gathered by Sheldrick's anti-poaching field teams while she learned about the behavior of the Park's many different species, and the administrative difficulties of keeping such a large project running on an uncertain budget. Meanwhile, after the birth of her first child, Jill, her marriage faced a series of challenges, including her inability to reconcile Bill's professed love of nature with his love of hunting, a growing knowledge of his love life with another individual, and an admiration for David Sheldrick that was growing into an undeniable passion.

Ultimately, Bill and Daphne dissolved their marriage on amicable terms and went on to find partners who fulfilled them in ways they could not provide for each other. This left David and Daphne free to build a relationship that would last until the former's death at the age of 57 in 1977. In 1955, Daphne became co-warden of the Park and took upon herself the responsibility of developing methods of tending to the menagerie of orphans that the anti-poaching patrols brought into headquarters on a regular basis. The task involved not only finding nutritive supplements that sufficiently approximated the animals' native diets and motherly milk supply, but overcoming the psychological traumas experienced by animals that had witnessed the violent death of their families and lost the will to live.

She was operating in unknown territory, and in the beginning the survival chances of very young elephants was dismally low. She had occasion to witness the startling depth and tenacity of elephant familial attachment as family members separated from each other by years found themselves again in the wild and joyously reunited, just as others lingered in distress over the body of a fallen relative, brushing its body with their trunk, trying to coax the deceased form into life once again. Infants brought into the center bore not only physical scars, but deep emotional distress that could drive them to refuse nourishment altogether, wasting slowly away until claimed by an all too early demise.

Even those who ate, however, came hard against our lack of knowledge about the basic necessities of elephant nutrition. Daphne experimented with formula after formula, hoping to strike upon the magical mixture that could adequately stand in for a mother elephant's milk, only to see elephant after elephant waste away and ultimately perish to malnutrition, until finally, at literally the last experimental formula on her shelf, she hit upon the combination that worked. Coconut oil, it turned out, was the crucial element that made the difference between starvation and success, and with it Sheldrick became the first person ever to successfully raise newborn orphaned elephants.

Her backyard soon became a menagerie of orphaned animals, including elephants, rhinos, antelope, ostriches, warthogs, and dik-diks, all living in a comfortable if occasionally boisterous proximity to one another, taking collective walks into the wild, supervised by Sheldrick and her animal keepers and every so often, of their own accord, heading into the wild to rejoin their kind.

It was, however, difficult to keep sight of the significance of these victories when each orphaned animal represented perhaps a whole family who had been slaughtered in the wild. That exchange rate could not continue and, thanks to David's tireless efforts to build roads and provisioning centers which allowed his anti-poaching squads to travel further and with greater organization, the slaughter of elephants for ivory seemed to be on the decline when a sudden spike in ivory prices saw its value increase a hundred fold, and with it the temptation to invade Park land to hunt elephants in the sanctuary that represented their last retreat. The era of the assault rifle and machine gun hit Tsavo with a cold fury helped along by corrupt park attendants who actively aided the raiding parties in exchange for a cut of the hefty profits.

While Daphne refined her methods for bringing traumatized and physically battered orphan species back from the brink of death, David began employing airplane reconnaissance to draw his field teams to sites of probable poaching activity, and the Park's doctors to the sides of injured animals, all while creating locations that would bring in enough tourists to convince the government that the wildlife of Kenya was more valuable alive than dead. David held himself to a punishing standard that he refused to moderate even in the face of clear heart problems that ultimately claimed his life and with it the vast store of his experience in wildlife management.

Daphne was devastated by the loss of David at such a young age, but determined to push his efforts to an international level. Friends who had served alongside the couple and influential donors who had been to the Park supported her in the creation of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, whereby Sheldrick was able not only to continue and deepen her efforts to provide medical care and rehabilitation for the orphaned wildlife of Kenya, but to create outreach programs to teach Kenyan children about the animals whose care would some day be their responsibility and films that would tell the world about the growing crisis faced by Kenyan wildlife at the hands of a global trade network that satisfied its customers' idle whims without a thought for cost. By harnessing the growing power of the internet, Sheldrick reached a whole new base of donors who were able to see directly the impact made by their donations on the lives of individual animals.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust continues its work today as simply the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, providing watering locations for wild herds that have faced dislocation to more arid landscapes, field medical units, aircraft surveillance, community outreach, and the orphan rehabilitation that Daphne Sheldrick pioneered seven decades ago. Awarded an honorary doctorate for her advances in wildlife veterinary medicine in 2000, and honored by Queen Elizabeth as a Dame Commander in 2006, Daphne Sheldrick succumbed to breast cancer in 2018 in Nairobi.


Dame Daphne Sheldrick's memoir, Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story (2012) is an incredibly moving tale of humanity's capacity for indifferent viciousness, and the heroism of those few who choose to stand against it even when failure is their unremitting reward. It is also a fascinating tale of Kenya's transition to independence as told by a person both native and other to that culture. If it moves you to make a donation to protect Africa's vanishing wildlife, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's website can be found here.

This piece was originally published as the 139th column in the Women In Science series, in 2019.


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