ELEPHANT EMOTION
By Daphne Sheldrick D.B.E.: 1992 UNEP Global 500 Laureate.

Why is it that most people feel such empathy for Elephants, even if they have never had close contact with them?

Is it because of their size, their quaint characteristics, or the the fact that they are so incredibly endearing as babies, tripping over little wobbly trunks that seem to serve no useful purpose other than get in the way? Or is it, perhaps, because Elephants are "human" animals, encompassed by an invisible aura that reaches deep into the human soul in a mysterious and mystifying way.

Of course, Elephants share with us humans many traits - the same span of life, (three score years and ten, all being well) and they develop at a parallel pace so that at any given age a baby elephant duplicates its human counterpart, reaching adulthood at the age of twenty. Elephants also display many of the attributes of humans as well as some of the failings. They share with us a strong sense of family and death and they feel many of the same emotions. Each one is, of course, like us, a unique individual with its own unique personality. They can be happy or sad, volatile or placid. They display envy, jealousy, throw tantrums and are fiercely competitive, and they can develop hang-ups which are reflected in behaviour. They also have many additional attributes we humans lack; incredible long range infrasound, communicating in voices we never hear, such sophisticated hearing that even a footfall is heard far away, and, of course they have a memory that far surpasses ours and spans a lifetime. They grieve deeply for lost loved ones, even shedding tears and suffering depression. They have a sense of compassion that projects beyond their own kind and sometimes extends to others in distress. They help one another in adversity, miss an absent loved one, and when you know them really well, you can see that they even smile when having fun and are happy.

I have been privileged to live amongst elephants (and other animals too) all my life, observing them in a wild situation for over 30 years, and hand-rearing their orphaned young for just as long. But it has been the rearing of the infant milk dependent babies that has given me an in-depth insight into the elephant psyche. Hand in hand with the good times, have come heartbreaks in abundance, but each elephant life saved has rewarded us richly with untold satisfaction. When rearing long lived animals such as elephants, one must dig deep from inner reserves to find "staying power'' for it is a long-term assignment parallel to raising a human child. It took me 28 long years to perfect the milk formula and complicated husbandry vital to success in terms of rearing the new-born elephants, and in the process each one that died shredded my heart. However, success did finally comeand since then 14 near-dead infants gradually came back to life and have enriched my life in a very special and emotional way.

Let's start with Eleanor, the amazing Elephant Matriarch now in her early forties who was orphaned at the age of two and whom I have known for as long as I have known my own children. She was there for me as I struggled to save the milk dependent "No Hopers" and there to take over those orphaned older who were no longer dependent on milk. It was Eleanor, and before her, a gentle cow called Fatuma, that first demonstrated to me the great caring heart of the female elephants and the depth of their love. But Eleanor and Fatuma were not unique. Every female elephant is, in fact, just like them, always eager to take custody of those younger and especially the tiny babies. Nevertheless, the head of an elephant Matriarch must rule her heart. She must be sufficiently responsible to make tough decisions in life for she must consider, first and foremost, the well-being of her family over and above the needs of any one individual that happens to fall on hard times. For instance, she must abandon a calf that is holding up the herd in the interests of the survival of the others, and knowing elephants as I do, I know just how heartbreaking this must be, not only for the Matriarch, but for all the members of the group. Whilst all female elephants (and sometimes the males) will want to care for an orphan, there are few cows with the lactating capacity to be able to suckle more than one calf, and naturally no cow elephant will jeopardise the survival of her own baby for someone else's, just as no human would either. Therefore, if a milk dependent baby (i.e. a calf less than 2 years old) loses its own mother, it is usually doomed, for, deprived of milk, it will weaken rapidly and fall behind. Eventually, it must be left if the others are to survive. It is such unfortunates that comprise our elephant family today.

Let me introduce our readers to the first one - OLMEG, whose name means "The Outsider" in the Masai dialect, since it was from Maralal in Samburuland that he originated. The fact that Olmeg was the very first infant that I succeeded in raising, and, in fact, the first infant elephant ever to have been hand-reared, makes him very special to me, and even more so because there was just my daughter Jill, and myself, to give him the hands-on 24 hour intensive care an infant elephant needs until such time as I had managed to train a team of Keepers to take over.

OLMEG, was just two weeks old when he was flown in 1987, having been discovered by tribesmen trapped in the mud of a deep washaway, sunburnt to a frazzle and more dead than alive from dehydration. He must have been a very robust calf physically to have survived such a trauma, especially as thereafter he spent ten days at a nearby Lodge being fed on cows, milk and carrots. But, survive he did, and today at 11 years old, he is the oldest in the orphan gang.

OLMEG is a complex character, deeply sensitive and easily wounded. During his Nursery period, being the first and oldest, he basked in the admiration of all those younger, including the next in line, TARU, who was orphaned in Tsavo and is 6 months younger. It is very normal for little bull elephants to indulge in a "hero--worship" on those older, because in childhood rank begins with age and rank is all important in elephant male society. Olmeg was unquestionably the boss in the Nursery. In fact, I think he thought he was the best and biggest elephant in the world, because having been orphaned so young, he probably would not remember his erstwhile elephant family clearly. Later he and Taru were joined by three other younger bulls, namely Dika from Tsavo, Ndume, who with Malaika, a female, came from the Imenti Forest, and Edo from Amboseli. Later still they were joined in Tsavo by AJOK, from Turkana, a tough little desert elephant who still enjoys the dubious status of "naughtiest".

Tantrums from Olmeg first became a daily occurrence when it was time to begin his weaning period. Suddenly his milk ration was cut to 3 bottles at a sitting, whereas Taru and the others still needed 4. The Keepers were puzzled when Olmeg behaved like a spoilt brat at every feed, and eventually as the trouble-shooter, I was called in. The reason was, of course, that he could count, and that he felt the others were being given preferential treatment at his expense. A fourth bottle containing just water was added to the three so that the line-up was the same for all, and thereafter the matter was resolved to everyone's satisfaction. It is very important always to treat each elephant exactly the same; never to give one something another cannot have, because it will be noticed  and remembered.

Olmeg and Taru were the first to leave the Nursery to be taken down to Voi to begin their re-intergration back into the wild community. Soon after their arrival, Eleanor and her adopted family turned up in a great state of excitement. These included Lissa (the self appointed "Nanny" to those smaller) and CHUMA, a little bull 6 months older than Olmeg, but who was orphaned old enough to be able to be given directly to Eleanor. Chuma is well named. His name means "iron" in Swahili.'

Confident and settled, he came bouncing up to Olmeg and Taru, who were nervous and unsure. Chuma began tussling with Olmeg and was quite obviously getting topsides of him. Taru, watching from the touchlines, instantly switched his hero-worship to "Chuma" and for that he has been punished. To this day, Olmeg has not forgiven him and nor is there any love lost between himself and Chuma either. Taru was forced to walk at the end of the line once the younger bulls swelled the ranks; forced to be the last to drink, despite being second in Line rankwise belittled before the others until one day, when sufficiently confident, he left Olmeg's group to join his buddy Chuma and became part of Eleanor's unit.

Meanwhile, whenever Olmeg met up with Chuma out in the bush, (which happens frequently during the dry season), the tussle between these young bulls continued, and we heard about these encounters through The Keepers' Diary, which chronicles the daily events down in Tsavo. For a long time Chuma usually won, but occasionally Olmeg did, particularly when he could count on the support of Eleanor's wild adoptee, a young bull older than both Chuma and himself, to whom we have given the name "Thomas". When Thomas was not there to lend support, Chuma was the victor, but with Thomas beside him, Olmeg's confidence swelled.

For several years, Taru remained on the touchlines as a spectator, but gradually began to engage Olmeg. From time to time he returned to the Stockades to spend time with the Boys (as our Group is known) and frequently joined them when out in the bush, still tail-end Charlie but obviously growing in stature and confidence.

Then, one day not long ago, he challenged Olmeg singly without the support of Chuma and trounced him soundly on home turf, thereby superceding Olmeg in rank and denting his ego terribly. Olmeg has taken 'to spending time on his own; he is irritable, and has vented his revenge on the National Park flagpole at the airfield and on Daniel Woodley's plane, which one day happened to shower him in dust as it landed.

Dika, next in rank and age to Taru, is showing signs of having lost respect for Olmeg, whilst Ndume, who was always small in size compared to Edo who is younger, has suddenly shot up and re-established precedence in the pecking order, shoving Edo onto the touchline. During his Nursery years, Ndume made up for lack of size by being deliberately disobedient and mischievous and all this in order to gain the attention and respect of the others. A stern tone of voice with the word ‘No’ usually does the trick.

Discipline is necessary and usually begins when the calves are 6 months old and have settled in and understand the meaning of English words, which they learn very quickly. Only one language, English, is spoken around them, both by their Keepers and us, so as not to confuse them with two.' The extent of their understanding in this respect was demonstrated by Olmeg when as a small calf, he was given a "Weetabix" every night as a special treat. Just a mention of the word "Weetabix" soon sent him flying to the relevant bin, so then we spelt it when enquiring of the Keepers whether or not he had received his evening treat. Very soon, he became wise to that too. So demanding and "hooked" on the Weetabix he became that if for some reason it was not forthcoming on time, he threw a tantrum. We decided then that it was not a good idea to "spoil" any of the elephants with handouts, a rule that is now very strictly enforced for their own good, because it is a sure recipe for bad behaviour and ultimately, "trouble".

Dika was the orphan that demonstrated despair and heartbreak so graphically. Some of his family were gunned down en masse, others fled, wounded amidst a hail of gunfire, and Dika had obviously raced through a dense thorn thicket, because when he arrived, he had hundreds of long acacia thorns protruding from almost every square inch of his body. For four long months we could get no sparkle from him and there were times when we wondered whether he was, in fact, mentally normal. Even the other elephants could get no response from him as he stood by himself dejectedly brooding on the loss of those he loved, tears staining his cheeks, reluctant to feed, refusing to play and unable to sleep- so obviously and tragically distraught.

AJOK, the desert elephant from Turkana who came to us when only a day or two old and who has always been "naughtiest" is a most endearing but very mischievous character. The word "Ajok" means "Hello!" in the Turkana dialect because Ajok simply popped up out of a riverbed with not another elephant in sight. It is a miracle that the tribesmen that found him spared his life, for the Turkana people who eke out an existence in that desert environment are opportunistic survivors, prone to eating anything on four legs, whether it be an elephant or a rat. But, this totally trusting tiny elephant obviously touched even their toughened hearts, and he was spared and sent to us.

Ajok is the strongest of all our babies, both physically and psychologically, honed by eons of evolution to be able to survive in extremely harsh and marginal conditions, where even people find it difficult. Of all our calves, he is the only one who has not needed the attentions of a Vet, and today, at 7 years old, he has the potential of being the biggest by far, almost as big as Olmeg, Taru, Dika, Edo and Ndume, all of whom are a good deal older.

Ajok is a prankster with a sense of humour, a Show-off and the most adventurous. He will play to the gallery and indulge in all sorts of  tricks in order to make people laugh and become the focus of their attention. He has a special trick - "shivering" his trunk beginning at the top and progressing downwards to the very tip. No one can resist this sight. He has been known to lie down and kick his legs in the air, twist his trunk round peoples´ necks in a stranglehold, pluck a hat off someone's head, and creep up onto Simon Trevor's veranda at night in order to heave an old camp chair, which he obviously regards as his special "toy" over the wall with a deafening clatter that scares any inmates. He waltzes in amongst the wild herds like a veteran, is sufficiently confident to spend time out and about by himself, especially when planning mischief, and is a law unto himself.

Like Ajok, Olmeg also has his own special "toy", a log of wood known as "Olmeg's Rubber Duck". This is positioned near a waterhole of his choice, heaved in, rolled about in the water, then heaved back up the bank, tossed about and rolled back in. Woe betide any of the others who trespass on The Rubber Duck. Glowering from the touchlines, Olmeg cautions them all with ears up and an old-fashioned "look" until he himself is ready to initiate proceedings.

DIKA is probably the "nicest" character - very gentle, very sensitive, with an innate "softness" yet with depths of hidden strength. He is large for his age with impressive ivory, though tusks that are not quite as thick as those of Ndume. Like Ajok, he has the potential of being a dominant bull when grown, and though slow to anger, has a toughness lacking in those more volatile.

EDO from Amboseli, is a rather shy and remote character. Since he was 6 months old when he lost his mother and came to us, he remembered his elephant family clearly, added to which he arrived in the Nursery when Dika, Malaika, and Ndume were already in residence. It was Dika that persuaded him to make the effort to try to live. Without that input, I truly believe we would not have been able to save Edo, who had suffered not just the loss of a mother but the rejection of his sister as well. She had a calf of her own and was lactating at the time, but would not allow him to suckle. Of all the orphans, Edo, Ndume and Malaika are the most distant with humans - Edo because he had the others, and Ndume and Malaika because they were almost beaten and hacked to death by irate tribesmen onto whose land their herd happened to trespass. In fact, a third calf was hacked to death before their eyes, whilst Ndume was beaten unconscious, and Malaika would undoubtedly have been killed had a Ranger not intervened in time. Small wonder then that they are wary of mankind.

Malaika is becoming another "Eleanor", the self appointed Matriarch of all who are younger, who will forego having fun with The Boys in order to care for the babies she has taken under her wing. These include our miracle, "Imenti" who arrived in the Nursery the day he was born, (his mother having suffered the same fate as that of Ndume and Malaika and who comes from the same remnant population of Imenti Elephants), Emily, who fell down a pit latrine near the Manyani Entrance Gate to Tsavo, Aitong who was trampled in a stampede and had severe head injuries on arrival and the latest arrival, little Uaso from the North, whose mother was obviously speared, since he came in with a spear wound in the back.

Malaika dislikes Eleanor, because Eleanor coaxed her favourite "baby", little Mpenzi, away to join her group. Malaika adored Mpenzi and has never forgiven Eleanor for taking this calf out of tier care. Today, he is very diligent in her role as Matriarch to the smaller orphans, but occasionally hands over-the role of "Nannie" to Emily, who literally swells with pride every time she is entrusted with this role.

A heart-warming tale is the saga of orphan LOMINYEK, whose name means "The Lucky one" in the Samburu dialect, "lucky" because whilst his mother died from a hail of gunfire, he had just one ricochet hole in the leg. He is also "Lucky" because he is the only orphan to have been rescued by the Kenya Wildlife Service since Dr. Leakey's tenure of office.

He was about 14 months old on arrival, victim of tribal turbulence in the North, where Samburu tribesmen are locked in almost daily conflict with Somali bandits. Lominyek had therefore grown up in an area where all humans are "the enemy". He came in sedated and when he came round, the first thing he wanted to do, was to kill the first human he saw, who happened to be our most proficient and gentle elephant keeper, Mishak. Mishak rapidly vaulted over the dividing partition into little Zoe's stable and Lominyek gradually calmed down after several attempts at breaking down the door.

At the time, there were two other Nursery inmates, "Zoe" and "Sungelai", both very much younger than Lominyek. The next morning, we let them both into his stable and crowding around him, they rumbled their greetings, eager to escort him out. All three emerged together at sunrise, but when Lominyek found himself amidst more dreaded humans, he lost his nerve, and yelling his head off, fled into the bush, Sungelai and Zoe hot on his heels, and the Keepers after them!

Seized by despair, I was at a loss to know what to do next, but I need not have worried, because several hours later, much to my astonishment, a little procession appeared from the thicket below the house - Lominyek being escorted back by Sungelai and Zoe, one on either side of him, followed at a respectable distance by the Keepers.

By this time the daily visitors were beginning to assemble, all intent on viewing the Orphans, noon mudbath, which is a popular routine whenever there are elephant inmates in the Nairobi Nursery. Again, I was extremely apprehensive, because on this particular day, a huge crowd turned up, and I envisaged a few of our visitors being flattened by the new incumbent, who was quite capable of exacting a telling revenge. However, yet again I had underestimated the sophistication of elephant communication. Incredibly, and unbelievably, Sungelai and Zoe by then had been able to persuade Lominyek that he had nothing to fear from the hordes of humans that now swarmed all around him, and taking his cue from them, he hesitantly greeted the people, gently offering the tip of a trembling little trunk, which was rapidly withdrawn when touched, ears up to signify unease, but nevertheless immaculately behaved. Although haunted by the loss of his elephant family for a time, Lominyek was transformed into a very gentle and forgiving little character and a great favourite, who turned up trumps only weeks later when tragedy struck, and we lost little Sungelai, who, unbeknownst to us, had a congenital heart deficiency and simply died in his sleep. Now it fell to Lominyek to ease the grief of little Zoe over the loss of her year long Nursery companion.

Lominyek was only in the Nairobi Nursery for about 5 months, before joining the older orphans in Tsavo. As soon as he scented the other elephants, his excitement was obvious, and when he saw Malaika, emotion overcame him and he took to butting her repeatedly, as though in punishment, whilst Emily, Imenti and Aitong dashed around trumpeting with excitement. We think that Lominyek probably had a big sister the size of Malaika amongst his lost family, and that the memory of being abandoned by her might have prompted this unusual initial behaviour. Thereafter, however, he remained literally glued to Malaika's side, something she found irritating, since this was the prerogative of the smaller calves, namely Aitong and Uaso. Eventually, she adopted tougher measures to try and detach him, prodding him with her tusks, something he did not appreciate.

Just as soon as he had completed his weaning year, and was milk independent, which coincided with the onset of the rains in Tsavo, he left Malaika's group and went in search of a more accommodating mother figure. Finally he found one, and what's more, one without tusks, so Lominyek is now happily settled within this family, meeting up with the other orphans from time to time out in the bush, but showing no inclination whatsoever to return to the Orphan Fold. His is, indeed, a story with a happy ending, and he is well named "The Lucky One".

Meanwhile, Eleanor's adopted family one day turned up in the custody of her wild friend, a Matriarch of similar age to Eleanor, whom our Keepers have named "Catherine". Why Eleanor abandoned her adopted family still remains a puzzle to us and why she appears to have severed all ties even with her former human family is, likewise, a puzzle, especially after such long contact. What we have learnt, though, is that aspiring Matriarchs are very competitive when it comes to acquiring a "family" for themselves, and that the bonding between Matriarchs and unrelated adoptees is much looser than that existing within a normal related group. We know, for instance, that Eleanor tried to hijack the calf of our 18 year old orphan "Mary" soon after it Was born, and that Mary had difficulty in reclaiming it, choosing thereafter to leave Eleanor's unit and join a wild herd led by a mire accommodating Matriarch. Similarly Malaika has never trusted Eleanor since she took Mpenzi and still jealously tries to limit the contact the younger orphans in her charge have with older wild cows.

Could it be that Eleanor is "piqued" with Catherine? Or has she perhaps been blessed at last with a calf of her own, which she prefers to keep to herself well away from humans. There is, of course, the terrible possibility that she might have perished beyond the borders of the Park along with many others during the time that water was so scarce; or perhaps she has seen a friend gunned down by the "Problem Animal Control Unit" of K.W.S. which has been very active under the current Director. We will never know for sure, but our prayer, and I know the prayer of many who have followed her life over the past 40 years, is that Eleanor is at last fulfilled - a wild elephant with a calf of her own, no longer in need of either an adopted family or human contact.

Eleanor was a drought victim, born during a period when there was no poaching in Tsavo National Park. Perhaps what she has learned since from contact with the wild elephants, and what she has seen for herself, has left her embittered towards humans. Sad as it is, it would not be surprising.

Three of our hand-reared charges have now successfully made the transition into the wild herds on a permanent basis, returning only occasionally to visit their orphan friends and their erstwhile human family. Others are still with us, but visit their wild elephant friends, usually in pairs, whilst Ajok is sufficiently confident to spend a lot of time on his own without the support of a friend in between outings with the wild herds.

The rains in Tsavo always bring on a welcome green flush, greatly enjoyed by the orphans. However, in 1977 we lost little Zoe, Lominyek's Nursery companion and an orphan who had seemed indestructible. Like Ajok, Zoe had never before needed the attentions of a Vet, suffering just one stomach disorder during her 18 months of life. Her sudden death stunned everyone, both human and elephant, and joy at the advent of the "green season" turned into sorrow and grief. Fortunately, however, this was cut short by the arrival of little "Uaso".

We were never able to establish exactly what had cost Zoe her life, and can only assume that she must have inadvertently eaten a toxic toadstool in amongst the trunkful of greens, or perhaps a poisonous insect or frog on a food plant, for elephants have an instinctive knowledge of what to eat and what to avoid.

"Uaso", like Lominyek, is an orphan from the North, but rather than a bullet wound, bore the results of a spear injury so his mother is likely to have been speared by tribesmen. He was spotted on his own with no other elephants nearby on the North Bank of the Uaso Nyiro river, which traverses Colcheccio Ranch, and which was in quite high spate at the time. He was, however, at least a year old, and though weak, was nevertheless sufficiently strong to put up a spirited struggle, so it took at least half a dozen stalwarts to subdue and surround him. Crowding him tightly, they then had to ford the swift flowing and crocodile infested river, which fortunately they managed to do without mishap, arriving at the Ranch Airstrip just as the Rescue plane was about to land. Thereafter, everything went like clockwork. Being at least a year old, and in not too bad shape, Uaso could be flown directly to Tsavo, where he was instantly taken over by Malaika and her brood, and as the smallest calf, was allowed the privileged "close" position. Although wary of the humans that surrounded him, he drew comfort from the other elephants, as we knew he would, and was soon downing his first bottle of milk, taking his cue from Aitong, who was only too happy to give a demonstration. He was nevertheless sure to keep Malaika between him and the Keeper wielding the bottle! Since then, he has achieved fame by being the star of the popular Programme, "Noel's Christmas Present" viewed by millions all over Europe and aired immediately after the Queen's Christmas Day speech.

The saga of our orphans is an ongoing story that will undoubtedly outlive most of us, God willing. I like the words of Henry Beston, from "The Outmost House," and especially so since they were written in 1928, a period when all most people knew about animals, was how to kill them.

"We need another and wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals .... In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth"

Animals are indeed more ancient, more complex, and in many ways more sophisticated than man. In terms of Nature they are truly more perfect because they remain within the ordered scheme of Nature and live as Nature intended. They are different to us, honed by natural selection over millennia so they should not be patronised, but rather respected and revered. And of all the animals, perhaps the most respected and revered should be the Elephant, for not only is it the largest land mammal on earth, but also the most emotionally human.

Share this:
Follow us:

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust   P.O. Box 15555 Nairobi Kenya

All Photographs in this website are Copyright by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and can not be used without permission.
Copyright 1999-2012, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. All Rights Reserved. | Privacy Policy