Daphne Sheldrick Biography

Author, Conservationist (1934–2018)
Daphne Sheldrick was a Kenyan conservationist and author who was an expert in animal husbandry. For over 60 years, she fostered orphaned animals — especially elephants and rhinos — and reintroduced them into the wild.

Who Was Daphne Sheldrick?

Born in 1934 in Kenya, Dame Dr. Daphne Sheldrick dedicated her life to caring for wild animals, working alongside her husband, naturalist David Sheldrick, who was an advocate for anti-poaching. They became co-wardens of Tsavo National Park, a place they built from the ground up and spent over 25 years rehabilitating a variety wild animals. On April 12, 2018, Sheldrick died after succumbing to breast cancer. She was 83.

Daphne Sheldrick Photo

Dame Daphne M. Sheldrick attends the 'Born To Be Wild 3D' screening at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on April 7, 2011 in New York City.

Death from Cancer

According to her daughter, Angela, Sheldrick died on April 12, 2018 "after a long battle with breast cancer."

Part of her public statement of her mother's passing is as follows:

"Daphne passed away the evening of the 12th April after a long battle with breast cancer, a battle she finally lost. Her legacy is immeasurable and her passing will reverberate far and wide because the difference she has made for conservation in Kenya is unparalleled. She will be sorely missed but never forgotten, and this is what Daphne drew the most comfort from in her final weeks; knowing that her memory and work would continue with the tiny steps of baby elephants for generations to come and that the work that she pioneered has been able to achieve so much for wildlife and wild places throughout Kenya." 

Daughters

Daphne and David's daughter, Angela, was born in July 1963. Daphne's first daughter, Jill, was born in 1955 from her marriage to Bill Woodley. Both daughters have been involved in the family business of wildlife conservation.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT)

After David's death in 1977, Daphne began a new life with her family at Nairobi National Park. Around this time, she created the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which aims to conserve and protect Kenya's wildlife. As part of the Trust, the Orphan's Project works with anti-poaching groups and vets to protect elephants, as well as rescue and rehabilitate them. With the help of the Kenya Wildlife service, its goal is to preserve the environment and keep the community informed. 

The Orphan’s Project

Th Orphan's Project has helped rehabilitate and reintegrate over 90 orphaned elephants back into their natural habitats. The most important part of restoring the health of the animals is finding a suitable milk formula, which Daphne perfected after 28 years of trial and error. Using human breast milk as the base with the addition of coconut oil, Daphne was able to create a milk substitute that could nurse both baby elephants and rhinos back to health.

Along with finding the right milk formula, the nursery also required 24-hour husbandry — a team of humans (called the keepers) who served as a surrogate family to the young animals. The keepers would observe and care for the orphans on a 24-hour basis, even sleeping with them during the nights. 

Fifty-five keepers are employed from local tribes and are supported by the trust. “The elephants choose their keepers — we just teach them the husbandry,” Sheldrick had said. “How to mix the milk, how to handle the elephant, what needs to be done. They have to ingratiate themselves with the elephants and that comes from the heart. If a chap has an empathy for the elephants, they will know that instantly and gravitate towards him.”

Running the Trust

Most of the funds from the trust come through a fostering initiative, in which subscribers can foster a particular orphaned elephant by making a donation. Subscribers are able to track the details and status of their animal's progress on the trust's site. The initiative was created by Sheldrick's daughter, Angela, who lives in Nairobi National Park with her family.

Angela currently oversees the trust, while her husband works as a safari operator. Their two sons are also intimately involved in the family business, as Angela told the Telegraph, “The future of the trust is assured — they're already telling us how to run it.”

Conservationist Chronicler

To promote wildlife conservation after her husband’s death, Sheldrick wrote articles and soon expanded her efforts to books, lectures and television. The BBC documentary “Elephant Diaries” and the 3-D IMAX film Born to Be Wild, which features orphaned elephants and Burmese orangutans, have garnered international acclaim.

Books

Some of Sheldrick's books include: Animal Kingdom: The Story of Tsavo, the Great African Game Park; Orphans of Tsavo (with G. A. Bradshaw); An Elephant Called Eleanor; The Elephant Letters: The Story of Billy and Kani; and her 2012 memoir, Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story.

Early Years

Dame Dr. Daphne Sheldrick was born Daphne Marjorie Jenkins in Kenya on June 4, 1934 as the third of Bryan and Marjorie (Webb) Jenkins’ four children. Daphne was raised with her siblings on a farm filled with domesticated and feral animals. In 1950, Daphne graduated with honors from Kenya High School.

Marriages and Children

In 1953 the then 19-year-old Daphne married Bill Woodley, who worked in Nairobi National Park as an assistant warden. Shortly after, the couple had their daughter Jill. Staring in the mid-1950s, Woodley and David Sheldrick began working together to plan out a new national park called Tsavo, a stretch of 5,000 square miles of federally protected land, which was in response to the devastation of wildlife brought on by poaching.  

Sheldrick had saved two orphaned elephants, Samson and Fatuma, around this time, and Daphne decided to help take care of them, along with juggling her administrative responsibilities and being a young mother to Jill.

Daphne began developing feelings for Sheldrick, and consequently, her marriage to Woodley began falling apart. Thankfully, she was able to divorce him on amicable terms. In 1960 she married Sheldrick, and three years later, their daughter Angela was born. 

David’s Death

Daphne and David continued working together, studying and caring for the animals and combatting poachers. In 1976 David received a promotion and the entire family moved to Nairobi National Park. Just months later, in the summer of 1977, David tragically died from a heart attack.   

Accolades

In 1989 Queen Elizabeth II bequeathed Sheldrick with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). She received an even higher honor in 1992 when she was recognized as U.N.E.P.’s elite Global 500 Roll of Honor. In 2000 Glasgow University awarded Sheldrick with an Honorary Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery, and the following year the Kenyan government celebrated her life's work with a Moran of the Burning Spear (M.B.S.)

Other awards include: the BBC’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and being included in the Smithsonian Magazine's 2005 list of top wildlife conservationists in the world. 

In 2006 Sheldrick was honored by Queen Elizabeth II again, this time being appointed as Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her conservation efforts, especially in Kenya. Her knighthood was the first for the African nation since it became an independent country in 1963.

Lasting Legacy

Of all her accomplishments, Daphne said she was most proud of the park itself and its influence on her family. “... Seeing my children and grandchildren's love for the natural world and their commitment to the David Sheldrake Wildlife Trust and the work we do is most rewarding,” she said in an interview with the Telegraph in 2014. “I know that the legacy of all we have worked towards will continue long after I am gone.”

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