Tuesday, July 24, 2018

For the Love of Elephants

Dame Daphne Sheldrick

Legendary Champion of the Elephants, Dame Daphne Sheldrick passed away in April, aged 83, after a courageous battle with cancer.  

Her devoted daughter, Angela Sheldrick paid tribute to her my mum saying: “Her legacy is immeasurable and her passing will reverberate far and wide because the difference she has made for conservation in Kenya is unparalleled.”

Photo by Michael Nichols

Angela is determined to carry on her mother’s work to save and protect endangered elephants.

In October 2017, I travelled to Nairobi for an exclusive interview with Angela reflecting on her life growing up with pioneering parents and the future of her important work.

A brief version of this story was published in the UK magazine My Weekly Special in June 2018.

Here is the long version of my inspiring interview with Angela.

Angela's Love Story

Angela Sheldrick, elegant in a pretty long floral dress, is seated serenely in a comfy armchair. In contrast, she usually spends her days outdoor in khakis, handling adorable baby elephants that delight in frolicking in rust-red mud!

Angela, 55, is the dynamic CEO of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that runs the world famous Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, caring for rescued babies left stranded when their mothers are brutally killed by poachers for the abhorrent illegal ivory trade or succumb to devastating drought.  

She talks eloquently in a perfect British accent about her passions and growing up wild and free in the untamed African bush in an idyllic landscape surrounded by exotic animals and cuddly pets with her big sister Jill and her legendary, pioneering parents, Daphne and David.

“I had a very unique childhood living in Eden. My father, a warden in the late 50s, 60s and 70s, was charged with the protection and creation of a national park out of 8000 square miles of virgin wilderness at Tsavo. So those kinds of experiences can never be duplicated in today’s world because such uncharted wildernesses don't exist any more. It was an extraordinary privilege and I can’t imagine a more perfect childhood!”

Earthy and Arty

While at home in the bush, Angela is also a talented artist. Her highly acclaimed whimsical watercolours capture the fragility and gentle playfulness of elephant babies. 

One of Angela's beautiful watercolours that help raise money for the Trust

Angela was catapulted into the glamorous film industry when she landed a job on the epic movie, Out of Africa, as one of the assistants to the dress designer, Milena Canonero, and later became a make-up artist and lived a carefree life travelling the world on job assignments throughout her 20s.

After graduating from art school at the University of Cape Town, Angela was living in the cosmopolitan city between film shoots. But returning home to Kenya for a holiday, she fell in love with her soul mate, Robert Carr-Hartley.

Angela's husband Rob shares her devotion to elephant conservation

The partnership was a match made in heaven. Robert was also raised in the wilderness of Kenya in a hardy, pioneering family.

She says: “I married a man who also grew up riding rhinos as a child! He is the only other person I know who had an unusual childhood like me. We instantly understood each other!

“Both of us had been struggling to find someone who could transverse both parts of our lives; the worldly and the wild. Rob was in the high-end luxury safari industry mixing with sophisticated international clients as well as being a competent bushman.”

Angela had a preconceived picture of an ideal man from her blue-eyed, charismatic father, whom she adored, for his rare combination of masculine strength and empathy and kindness for all living things; qualities she found in her husband.  

Married 20 years, the devoted couple have two handsome teenager sons, Taru, 19 and Roan, 17 who are training in the challenging work of the Trust, monitoring the magnificent national parks from planes and helicopters and rough road vehicles.

Angela with sons Taru and Roan

An Inspiring Love Story

Angela and Rob’s love story echoes her parents’ passionate romance and shared dedication to protecting the habitat and endangered wildlife of Kenya.

When David died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 57 in 1977, his grief-stricken wife carried on his remarkable work through the Trust established in his name.

Angela says: “My father was a hugely respected conservationist and naturalist and in the wake of his death, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was set up in his memory by his peers who felt that his vision for conservation in Kenya must continue.”

David Sheldrick in the 60s

Daphne in her 20s

David and Daphne and baby Angela 1963
Daphne and Angela with orphaned buffalo and rhino

Her mother, Daphne was tough and resilient having once survived being hurled against the rocks by a wild elephant. The bones in her leg were shattered and after enduring 15 months of agonising pain, operations, infections and bone grafts, Daphne’s love for elephants was undiminished.

In 2006, Daphne was made Dame Commander of the British Empire by the Queen in recognition of her meticulous research and conservation work as the world’s leading authority on elephants.

And in 2012, Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick published her enthralling book, An African Love Story, documenting her fascinating life of purpose, passion and adventure.

Daphne’s heartfelt memoir recalls how she and David were the first people to hand raise a playful pair of orphaned African elephants, Samson and Fatuma, in the 1950s.

Caring for Orphans

Since then, the renowned Elephant Orphanage has rescued, nurtured and released more than 200 orphan elephants back into the herds at Tsavo.

“In our wildest dreams we never imagined that over 200 would come through our care over the last 40 years, says Angela.

The success rate is most gratifying because caring for infant elephants is extremely challenging, due to the intricacies with the milk formula but infant elephants also require intensive, round the clock care, bottle-feeding every three hours, for three to six years by a team of devoted keepers, who even sleep in the stockades with the milk-dependent babies. 

Peter with baby Pili, just three weeks old when he was rescued.

Angela explains: “It’s one of these jobs that comes with its fair share of stress and heartache. But it’s also very stimulating with immense satisfaction. We do feel at the end of every day that we have made a difference and that’s a real gift. Not everyone has that luxury.”

While the picture of adorable rusty baby elephants being bottle fed by green-coated keepers and cavorting in their morning mud bath attracts elated, camera-toting tourists from around the world during the one hour noon visiting time when the Nairobi Nursery is open to the public, the orphan project is a small part of the Trust’s important conservation work.

“We have to take care of the bigger picture of protecting the habitat and wild herds or else rescuing and releasing orphans would be futile, states Angela.

“The Trust has 10 anti-poaching teams and five mobile veterinary units and a sky vet unit to attend to injured and sick animals based in Tsavo, Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Meru, Mount Kenya and Laikipia.

“We have a strong aerial surveillance unit comprises two helicopters, three small bush plans, two Cessna’s, a team of highly skilled bush pilots and an advanced communication network because coverage from the air is essential, with limited road networks throughout the vast landscapes of the national parks.”

The elaborate daily operation is dedicated to preventing poachers from killing elephants for their tusks. Millions of magnificent elephants have been savagely slaughtered in the past 50 years for the lucrative ivory trade in China.  

Working in close partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Trust has assisted in reducing poaching by 60 per cent since 2015. 

 “With the helicopters, we can have boots on the ground to catch poachers within minutes. This is a strong deterrent. Previously poachers knew they had hours before planes could land and the rangers catch up to them. And we now have tracker dogs that fly in the helicopters to assist the ground teams.”

A rescue mission using the Trust's helicopter

Sinister Threats

However Angela and fellow conservationists are concerned about other sinister threats to elephants such as loss of habitat and climate change.

She says: “With the burgeoning human population of Kenya the footprint is sprawling into habitat without much thought for land use policy. Kenya is having a China-led development boom very often at the expense of the environment without enough attention placed on the impact this can have on elephant migratory routes.

“The government needs to ensure that Kenya’s natural resources are kept in tact. The developed world is everywhere but what the world doesn’t have is this extraordinary jewel of wilderness that Kenya and East Africa can claim. You cant’ possibly put a value on that.

“While the West appreciates the natural environment having lost much of its own wilderness and wildlife, unfortunately in Kenya there’s a desire for development and not enough appreciation for their natural heritage. This attitude is changing with the younger generation but maybe not fast enough.

“One of the worrying trends is climate change. We’re seeing some desperate droughts and livestock incursion because of dry seasons and the destruction of habitat, which affects elephants the most.”

Orphan Pili was found clinging to a pepper tree near the river after his mother died in the drought

Surprisingly for large animals that look so robust, Angela explains that elephant are in fact the most fragile of all species.

“Sadly elephants are the first to die in a drought. Nature has made them that way. They are the most vulnerable to lack of food and water.

“Due to climate change Kenya is prone to drought. To see these beautiful animals under such stress at the hands of humans is heartbreaking. The planet is so messed up.

“Sitting here in the perfection of nature, we realise that humanity is on such a destructive path. We can learn so much by saving such a glorious species and quite frankly if we can’t save the elephant then we’re not going to save ourselves.”

What’s so Special About Elephants?

 “If you had asked my mother this question, her answer would have been the same. It’s not that elephants are our favourite animals. If you asked Daphne she would say her favourite orphan was an impala called Bushy and mine was a little gazelle called Jerry. All animals are extraordinary when you are able to know them intimately.

“The Trust also cares for a host of orphaned wildlife including hippos, rhinos, buffalos, zebras, impalas, Thompson gazelles, duikers, kudus, warthogs and monkeys and many more in our Tsavo centre.

“But what’s so special about elephants is their huge capacity for compassion and forgiveness. It’s humbling when you think what they have suffered and very quickly they can overlook human cruelty and give love in exchange for saving of their lives.

Elephants feel and express a powerful love for their mates and babies and herd, other animals and their human carers

“Their compassion transcends species as elephants are nurturing to all our orphan animals.”

“The intriguing thing about elephants is they are so like us.”

Elephants have the same lifespan as humans, living 80 or more years, with the same stages of mental and emotional development. Babies are dependent for a long childhood, and only come into maturity in adolescence.

“Whenever a new orphan is rescued, says Angela, it will need 10 years of care before being released into the wild. Just like a child isn’t ready for a sleep-over until about five or six, an elephant is about the same age before being confident enough to leave the keepers and stay with wild friends overnight!” 

Elephants form deep bonds with their families and herds and suffer extreme, prolonged grief, mourning loudly and shedding copious tears, when a loved one dies.

“Because we’ve had the luxury of knowing 200 elephants intimately, we know that when an elephant is killed by poachers, it’s not just a statistic or object that dies, it's a real individual with a personality and vital relationships in the herd. None of our orphan babies were raised by a single mother. It is always a collection of females in a circle of love.

“We know the magnificence of that animal, the inbuilt wisdom that is so needed by the population. A dead elephant is a fallen monument, not just a carcass.”

And according to Angela, baby elephants have their own quirky, loveable personalities.

“Some are of our orphans are shy and introverted, or insecure clinging vines while others are gregarious clowns and kooky nutcases!”
Yet the intelligence of mature elephants is profound and the matriarch faces daily moral dilemmas in leading her herd in drought conditions.

“She is anchored to waterholes because the calves can’t walk 70 miles in a day in search of food but she has her whole family of three generations and their offspring to care for. So she has to make the terrible decision to abandon an ailing calf so the others can survive. It’s heart breaking.”

Elephants are Pivotal in the Ecosystem

Many people do not realise that elephants are crucial in the survival of other species.

“Without elephants, many other species would die off. Other animals are dependent on elephants because they knock down the dense woodlands and create grasslands for all the browsing species; zebras and buffaloes and all the herbivores. They dig the water holes in dry seasons and create paths to the waterholes.

“Elephants play a vital role in this intricate, inter-dependent system.”

Fostering is the Key to Saving Baby Elephants

Although daily visitors to the popular orphanage on the edge of Nairobi National Park generate some revenue, most vital funding comes through the Foster Programme, with people from all over the world sponsoring baby elephants through the Trust’s website.

Because of the drought last year the Trust rescued numerous desperate collapsed cases on the verge of death, and the Foster Programme makes it possible to care for the precious babies giving them a second chance.

The question is, if we are not motivated to save our precious elephants, can destructive humans save themselves?