LAST OCTOBER, A LAND CRUISER truck carrying the limp body of a month-old African elephant pulled up to the gate of Daphne Sheldrick’s property just outside of Kenya’s Nairobi National Park. It had been found wandering alone outside another park dazed and dehydrated, its floppy ears badly sunburned. “The babies are always ill and sometimes severely traumatized,” says Sheldrick now as she tends the new arrival, applying antiseptic powder to its ears and to a wound on its leg. “Constant affection, attention, touching and communication are crucial to their will to live. They must never be left alone.”
Remarkably, those that make it to the Sheldrick homestead never are. Until they are 2, they get all the attention that a human infant would receive—including having a keeper sleep at their side every night. Sheldrick, 61, the widow of David Sheldrick, a renowned naturalist and founder of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, opened her elephant and rhino orphanage in 1977 and has become a leading authority on infant elephant behavior. After 25 years of frustrating trial and error, she developed a system for nurturing baby elephants. Her method includes a skim milk-coconut oil formula devised for human babies—young pachyderms cannot digest the fat in cow’s milk—a small amount of elephant dung to provide digestion-enhancing bacteria and round-the-clock human contact. In 1987 she became the first person to hand-raise a wild, milk-dependent baby elephant. Since then, she and her staff of eight keepers have raised 12 elephants from infancy—the highest success rate in the world. “What Daphne gives them is hands-on care,” says Tony Fitzjohn, a Kenyan conservationist. “It’s what they need, and it’s extremely hard work.”
Especially when elephants arrive damaged. The newest, which Sheldrick has named Sungelai (Swahili for “mighty warrior”), consumes about 10 quarts of formula—plus eight quarts of additional fluid and salts—to help him rehydrate. He receives his bottles through a hole in a gray blanket hung between two trees, which replicates the shape and feel of a mother elephant’s belly. Sheldrick’s keepers rotate 6-hour shifts, playing with him, taking him on walks—and occasionally disciplining him.
“Infant elephants are very similar to human infants,” says Sheldrick. “They can be naughty, competitive and disobedient: When you say, ‘No,’ they want to do it.” If punishment is called for, Sheldrick gives them “a little zing on the bum” with a battery-powered cattle prod. “It’s an unfamiliar sensation, so it’s unpleasant for them. But then,” she adds, “you have to be careful to make friends with them again.” Prodigious memory may explain why zookeepers are occasionally killed by elephants they have known for years. “They’ve done something to the elephant which they’ve forgotten, but the elephant hasn’t,” Sheldrick explains.
For every step forward, there were painful retreats. In 1974, while at Tsavo, Sheldrick achieved a breakthrough when she nursed a newborn, Aisha, to 6 months. But then she had to leave for two weeks to attend her daughter Jill’s wedding. Aisha, who had bonded exclusively with Sheldrick—stopped eating. “She died of a broken heart,” says Sheldrick, who now rotates keepers to prevent babies from bonding with only one person.
The orphans remain at Sheldrick’s Nairobi compound until the age of 2, when they are fully weaned onto a vegetable diet. Once they are able to feed themselves, they are trucked to Tsavo National Park, 150 miles away, where they are put into a stockade and gradually introduced to local herds. Eleanor, 38, who was rescued by Sheldrick’s first husband and reintroduced into the wild in 1970, has become a willing adoptive mother. “The little elephants are always welcome in a wild herd,” says Sheldrick.
But the adults can also be stern parents. “If the matriarch gives them a smack with her trunk, they’ll come flying back to their human keepers,” says Sheldrick, who makes sure the youngsters are free to come and go from the stockade. “It takes 12 to 15 years [of their 60-to 70-year lifespan] before the baby becomes independent of his human family. Eventually they get bored stiff with people because they’re having more fun with elephants.”
For their part, elephants can make it instantly clear when humans have overstepped their welcome. Last year, Sheldrick was visiting Tsavo when mistakenly she thought she had spotted Eleanor. “I called to her, and she came over” she recalls. “I talked to her for about 10 minutes and touched her ear. She didn’t like that at all and used her tusk and trunk to send me flying into a pile of boulders.” Despite a shattered right knee and femur from which she is still recovering, Sheldrick doesn’t hold a grudge. “On the contrary,” she says, “I’m very flattered that a completely wild elephant would come talk to me.”
Sheldrick’s affinity for animals showed up early in life. The third of four children born to farmers Brian and Marjorie Jenkins, she grew up near Kenya’s Rift Valley and took care of her first orphan, a duiker antelope, when she was 3. She was still a teen in 1953 when she married game warden Bill Woodley and moved to Tsavo National Park, where their daughter Jill, now 40, was born. The marriage failed because of Woodley’s long absences, and they were divorced in 1959. The following year she married David Sheldrick, Tsavo’s founding warden—and Woodley’s boss—with whom she had a daughter, Angela, 32.
For the next 16 years, Sheldrick lived a life straight out of Born Free, learning the behavior of native animals from the orphans—including wild rhino, buffalo, zebra, impala, eland, reed-buck, warthog, mongoose, antelope and birds brought to her by park rangers. “When you raise an orphan, you need to know how that animal lives in the wild, whether it’s gregarious and needs a family or solitary and needs seclusion,” she says. “You have to duplicate natural conditions. And you have to take care of its mind as well as its body. Each elephant,” says Sheldrick, “has his own story. Kika grieved for months for his family that was killed by poachers. Emily had endless stomach problems. Aitong arrived with pneumonia and a head injury that made her walk in circles.”
In 1976, David Sheldrick was transferred to Nairobi but the next year suddenly died of a heart attack. Daphne received permission from the government to build a three-bedroom bungalow at the edge of Nairobi National Park, 15 miles outside the capital. In 1977 she established her orphanage—and began to form the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to fund her work. Her efforts have earned her a Member of the Order of the British Empire and election to the United Nations Environment Program Global 500 list of achievers.
The pace of adoptions has ebbed since the sale of ivory was banned internationally in 1989 (in the 70s and ’80s poachers slaughtered more than 150,000 of Kenya’s elephants for their tusks), leaving Sheldrick more time to write and lecture. Still, baby elephants continue to be separated from their herds accidentally. And Sheldrick wants every one of them to have a foster family.
Hers. On a recent afternoon, she looked on maternally as Sungelai mischievously butted one of his keepers. “He was demoralized and cross when he came in,” she says. “Since then, his tummy has stabilized and he’s put on 100 pounds. You can tell he’s quite a pushy little guy,” she adds with pride. “And he’s started playing. That’s always a very good sign.”
CATHY NOLAN in Nairobi