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Celebrating the Life's Work of Dame Daphne Sheldrick, Savior of Elephants in Africa

By Allan Thornton, President of EIA

The wildlife conservationist community, and more importantly the world’s elephants, lost one of their most important and avid champions this month when Daphne Sheldrick, savior of hundreds of orphaned African elephants, died on April 12 in Nairobi at the age of 83.

EIA was fortunate to have worked with Daphne going back to our original investigations in the late 1980s when Dave Currey and I visited her at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage where Daphne lived, in Nairobi National Park. Daphne was unlike anyone we’d ever met, before or since. She knew more about elephants than any individual I had encountered, with extensive insight into, and an acute understanding of, their character, personalities, and ways of living. In fact, Daphne had an enormous heart and affection for all animals.

To EIA, Daphne became an important source of valuable information that helped guide our initial two years’ worth of investigations into the global ivory trade. She kept a log of all the reported elephants poached around Kenya at the time, and shared information on hundreds of poached animals.

This cover photo of EIA's first groundbreaking 1989 elephant report A System of Extinction - The African Elephant Disaster was taken in Tsavo Park with the help of Daphne's daughter Jill. The orphanage had a rare off-road permit, so Jill was able to drive us to the site of the two poached elephants, thus enabling us to gather the first images of the massive slaughter of elephants that was underway. At that time, some 70,000 were being killed each year for their tusks. In the photo, that dark cloud on the horizon reflected a sense of doom that Daphne, and dozens of other elephant conservationists, felt at the extensive poaching not just in Kenya but throughout Africa.

Back in 1989, Daphne had four baby elephant orphans that she cared for, and she was continually experimenting to find the most effective milk formula, one that included as many nutrients as would have been provided by the elephant mothers. When an EIA team visited Daphne and the orphanage in November 2013, Daphne had 30 elephant orphans with new arrivals coming every week. Daphne pointed out that many of them did not survive – too traumatized, or too dehydrated and weak from spending days in the blazing sun with their dead mother or the herd.

Daphne's stories were both heartbreaking and inspiring – reflecting her compassion and sadness for each orphan, but also her extraordinary insight, knowledge and unflagging commitment to the animals’ survival and well-being. When Dave and I first visited Daphne, she had a baby orphan Dika that would come into her kitchen at midnight for a big bottle of milk. Ten years later, in 1999, I was again visiting Dika, now a grown male elephant living in the wild - one of some 170 animals that Daphne saved and rehabilitated back into their natural habitat once they were grown up. She explained how her adult elephants in Tsavo would come to the Sheldrick elephant compound to greet the "teenagers" and to take them out for the night in the wild. Daphne explained how some would stay out all night, returning the next day while one or two would come back in the night for the familiarity and security of the compound.

Daphne's role in elephant conservation was unique and it is fortunate that her daughter Angela, who has been managing the orphanage for the past decade and a half, will carry on that legacy. The Sheldrick Orphanage stands today not only as a critical refuge, but as an emblem – teaching visitors and the world at large about the unique beauty and evolutionary development of elephants. The ivory trade continues to be the greatest scourge and ongoing threat to elephants. Daphne Sheldrick’s life’s work – protecting this most amazing of species – serves to remind the world not just of the environmental and cultural importance of live elephants, but also of their extraordinary sensibilities and visible display of so many positive values and inclinations that we as humans cherish.

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