Who Is Daphne Sheldrick?
Dame Dr. Daphne Sheldrick is an international authority on the rearing of wild creatures. She and her husband David—a famous naturalist and pioneering game warden who dedicated much of his life to combatting poaching—worked together for more than 25 years. As co-wardens, they built Tsavo National Park from untamed wilderness where they successfully rehabilitated many wild species, including elephants, black rhinos, buffalo, zebras, impalas, warthogs, mongooses and birds.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT)
Since the 1977 death of her husband, Daphne and her family have lived and worked in Nairobi National Park. That same year, she established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to conserve, preserve and protect the wildlife in Kenya. Its pioneering Orphan’s Project now operates the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world alongside anti-poaching teams, mobile veterinary units and aerial surveillance and a sky vet initiative in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service. Its other projects aim to safeguard the natural environment and enhance community awareness. Despite the trust's efforts, poaching elephants for their tusks and rhinos for their horns remains rampant in Kenya, as it is across much of Africa.
The Orphan’s Project
Through its Orphan’s Project program, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has successfully rescued hundreds of orphaned elephants and reintegrated more than 90 of them back into the wild. The key to its success was Daphne’s tireless efforts to find the right formula to feed elephant and rhino babies. She was the first person to perfect the milk formula for both infant milk-dependent elephants and rhinos. They can’t tolerate the fat in cow’s milk, but the infants are fully dependent on their mother’s milk until they’re two years old; they are not fully weaned until around four or five. Finding a suitable substitute for elephant milk took Sheldrick 28 years of trial and error before she hit on a formula that contained coconut oil—likely the nearest replacement for the fat in elephant milk. The trust currently uses human breast milk formula as the base for their milk.
In the nursery, the calves get only milk and the natural vegetation they eat, called browse. This special formula must also be combined with hands-on husbandry, which involves a human “family” (the keepers). They replace the lost elephant family and stay with the orphans in the Nairobi Nursery 24 hours a day, sleeping with the infants during the night on a rotational basis.
The trust employs 55 keepers recruited from a mix of tribes from the area. “The elephants choose their keepers—we just teach them the husbandry,” Sheldrick says. “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
The trust raises the bulk of its income from the many thousands of subscribers who pay to “foster” an orphan. Each elephant's story is on the trust's website, with details about where it is from, photos of its rescue and news of its progress. The fostering initiative was implemented by Sheldrick's younger daughter, Angela, who lives in a neighboring house with her husband and their two sons.
Angela runs the trust now, aided by her mother's expertise. Her husband, Robert Carr-Hartley, is a safari operator.
Their two boys, Taru and Roan, attend a local school and, as Angela told the Telegraph, “The future of the trust is assured—they're already telling us how to run it.”
To promote wildlife conservation after her husband’s death, Sheldrick began writing articles and soon expanded her efforts to books, lectures and television appearances. The BBC documentary “Elephant Diaries” depicting her work with the orphaned elephants, has received worldwide acclaim, as has the 3-D IMAX film Born to Be Wild, featuring the Trust’s orphaned elephants and the orangutans of Burma. Some of her 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.
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. The family lived on a large farm in the Rift Valley where they raised their children surrounded by both domesticated and wild animals. Daphne attended Nakuru Primary School and then Kenya High School where she matriculated with honors in 1950.
As a child, she took on the responsibility of nurturing an orphaned baby bushbuck (antelope). “Bushy” was the first of many hundreds of orphans that Sheldrick has raised in her life and established her philosophy that you should not raise an orphaned animal unless you can be certain that it will be able to enjoy a quality of life in the wild once its health is restored.
Marriages and Children
In 1953, then 19-year-old Daphne married Bill Woodley, an assistant warden in the Nairobi National Park, and became pregnant with her daughter Jill. By the mid-1950s, Woodley began working with David Sheldrick to establish Tsavo, a new national park, from the scrubland of the Taru desert. Tsavo covered 5,000 square miles and was the only chunk of land that the government could afford to set aside for the preservation of wildlife, which was beginning to be decimated by poaching.
Daphne took on two baby orphan elephants that Sheldrick had rescued, Samson and Fatuma, and became fascinated by them. She split her time between bookkeeping and secretarial work, establishing files on all of the poachers, and looking after Jill, who played happily with the elephants.
Daphne’s relationship with her husband crumbled as she found herself more and more attracted to Sheldrick who had separated from his wife. She divorced Woodley (though they remained friends) and married Sheldrick in October of 1960. Daphne’s and David's daughter Angela was born in July 1963.
The couple worked well together combatting poachers and constantly studying the lives of the animals they cared for. When David was given a new position of supervising all the national parks and reserves, they had to uproot themselves. They settled in Nairobi National Park in December 1976; the following summer, David died of a heart attack. He had achieved a huge amount in his time, with his vast knowledge of wildlife, his research into elephants, and the pioneering methods he instilled in Tsavo.
After burying her husband, Daphne got permission from the government to build a house in Nairobi National Park. She began to write wildlife articles, then received a call from the park's director of wildlife asking her to help with two baby elephants that had just come into the orphanage at the park's headquarters—and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was born.
For her work in the field of conservation, Queen Elizabeth II decorated Sheldrick with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1989. In 1992, she was elevated to U.N.E.P.’s elite Global 500 Roll of Honor and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery by Glasgow University in June 2000.
In December 2001, the Kenya Government presented Sheldrick with a Moran of the Burning Spear (M.B.S.), followed in 2002 by the BBC’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The November 2005 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine named Sheldrick as one of 35 people worldwide who have made a difference in terms of animal husbandry and wildlife conservation.
On the 2006 New Year’s Honors List, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Dr. Daphne Sheldrick to Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her services to the conservation of wildlife, especially elephants and to the local community in Kenya. This marked the first knighthood to be awarded in Kenya since the country received Independence in 1963.
The existence of the park remains one of Daphne's proudest achievements. “But 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. “I know that the legacy of all we have worked towards will continue long after I am gone.”
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