“All life has just one home, the earth — and we, as the dominant species, must take care of it.” - Daphne Sheldrick
Home. So much lives within a single word. Home is more than a place; it is everything we hold sacred. It is the genesis of all life.
The concept of “home” — protecting the earth we share, and providing a family for creatures who have lost their own — is what inspired my mother to found the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in 1977. 45 years on, it continues to shape everything we do.
In this special edition of Field Notes, I am delighted to share our new short film. It is a three-minute celebration of our work and the people who enable it. I hope it makes you feel as proud and inspired as I am, for you are a part of this mission.
In every edition of Field Notes, Angela Sheldrick interviews a member of the team. This month, we flipped the usual setup and put Angela in the interview seat.
How did the Trust’s beginnings shape where it is today?
No one could have possibly imagined what the future had in store. I had a dream childhood, growing up in nature among so many different creatures. To lose my father at such a young age was devastating, but I was blessed with the most incredible mother. Daphne embraced life, despite its challenges, and was always full of optimism. She continued to pursue David’s vision and dreams, in a fierce way, to ensure they didn’t die with him.
However, Daphne could never have predicted that elephants would circle back into her life in the way that they did. Many people don’t realise this, but the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was not originally created to raise orphaned elephants. She never imagined that the first orphans who trickled through would amount to many hundreds of elephants raised over the years. Nor did she foresee that, in the fullness of time, we would be able to do so much more for our natural world, ensuring that elephants’ futures are secured through comprehensive landscape conservation across Kenya.
What role does legacy play in conservation work?
When you’re raising orphaned elephants, you need several lifetimes to measure the success of one’s endeavours. After all, elephants are a species whose lives mirror our own. It takes decades of continuity and commitment to see them through their infancy and into adulthood. Over the years, we have met 48 calves born to orphaned elephants we rescued, raised, and reintegrated back into the wild — and that number is set to grow exponentially in the very near future. I know that Daphne is looking down and bursting with pride to see these new generations come through. It was something she often talked about; being able to witness the fruits of one’s labours, how one rescued individual can blossom into all these incredible lives.
This is our legacy at work. The Trust is truly a labour of love, started a lifetime ago by two people who had a shared vision for conservation and the courage to pursue it. Because of the foundations David and Daphne put into place, we have been able to build an organisation that exceeds their wildest dreams. And now, the legacy continues. My sons and nephew are flying the same skies David flew, tackling the same threats he tackled.
The Trust has successfully raised over 265 orphaned elephants. What strikes you most about the Orphans’ Project?
These orphans were raised by the human hand. Many have never even been exposed to their elephant families, because they were rescued so young. And yet, the friendships they make as they go through our reintegration units ensures that they are set up for success in their wild lives. More than that, together, these orphans are raising their own wild-born young in such a competent way.
And yet, they never turn their back on those who supported them through their darkest days. Even once they are living completely wild lives, our orphans never forget the men who raised them. The fact that they share their wild-born babies with their Keepers says it all. It is the most extraordinary form of gratitude.
These little orphans are also powerful ambassadors for their species. Through their individual tales, a much broader story has been told. We have seen an incredible global commitment to protecting elephants. This support has enabled us to save swathes of wilderness for their future, to help protect the parks and surrounding areas, to have the means to respond to emergencies.
How has the conservation landscape changed since David and Daphne’s time?
Growing up, there wasn’t an appreciation for the work we do today. But this was a different time; there were 28,000 elephants and 8,000 rhinos in Tsavo alone. The conversation back then was that there were too many elephants. My parents really were trailblazers in every sense of the word. Everything they did was pioneering — and it was often a lonely battle, with limited tools at their disposal.
My parents were way ahead of their time, only because they understood elephants like nobody else. Back then, if you spoke about elephants in human terms, you were dismissed as anthropomorphic. Today, I see a much greater reverence for nature and wildlife. Elephants, in particular, have captured the hearts of people all over the world. Finally, they are now respected as the sentient beings that they are.
The world has changed immeasurably since David and Daphne’s time — for better, and for worse. Despite a newfound appreciation for our natural world, we face a host of new challenges. Habitat loss is chief among them. Even in my lifetime, elephants’ rangelands have shrunk beyond recognition.
And yet, day to day, much of our work remains exactly the same and comfortingly familiar. We are still flying the skies in our Super Cubs, conducting anti-poaching patrols, rescuing orphaned calves, pulling elephants out of the mud — just as David and Daphne did all those years ago.
What are the greatest threats facing elephants today?
Poaching is a serious threat, but it is something that resources can help us bring under control. However, there are more insidious threats at play — namely, the expansion of the human footprint. If Kenya is to continue to have the number of elephants we boast today, we must preserve the places they call home. Once landscapes are lost, there is no retrieving them.
How has a lifetime spent with elephants shaped your understanding of them?
Raising an orphaned elephant gives you an intimate understanding of the intricacies of the species, and just how like us they are. In fact, compared to elephants, the human species is actually quite blunt. Elephants are more intelligent, sensitive, vulnerable, compassionate, and forgiving than we could possibly ever imagine. These are incredibly complex creatures. They are born with an inbuilt GPS system and a genetic memory. They have such sophisticated means of communication, from infrasound to telepathy to seismic vibrations. All of us at the Trust know elephants well, yet we still learn from them every single day.
Have elephants impacted your understanding of humankind?
As a human species, we think that if you can’t understand it, it can’t possibly be. And that is our greatest shortcoming. The moment we understand that there are things on this planet far more sophisticated than ourselves, that is when we will reconnect with the qualities that we have lost in our changing world.
It does frighten me to see how much humanity has moved away from nature — but I have felt a shift in the past two years. If there is a silver lining of the pandemic, it is that people have a newfound appreciation for our home. Finally, we are opening their eyes to the complex wonders of our natural world.
This is incredibly important, because we cannot live in isolation of nature. When we nurture nature, we begin to understand a bit more about living, and a bit more about ourselves. As my mother always said, this is the key to being at peace with oneself and with others.
On the subject of humans, can you share a bit about the team behind the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust?
Back in the day, David and Daphne were lonely voices. It is such a privilege to be walking in their footsteps — but I am not walking alone; I am step-in-step with an incredible team. These people work so selflessly, far beyond the call of duty, to make a difference that cannot be measured. This applies to every single employee, across all functions. I am constantly blown away by the talent, passion, and commitment of those who share this mission.
This commitment includes our global supporters, incredible people around the world whose contributions enable us to do what we do. This is the most humbling thing — that in a broken world, with so much going on, people are still moved by our conservation work.
Let’s end on the note of home: Why does Tsavo represent home for you, in every sense of the word?
Tsavo is an extraordinary place, unrivaled in its vast beauty and abundance of life. It is Kenya’s largest national park, and home to its biggest population of elephants. There are miles and miles of wilderness, as far as the eye can see. Every corner is teeming with life: weavers building their nests, calves dashing amongst their mothers, lions lazing away from the orange sun. Every single day in Tsavo is a revelation.
David didn’t know much about Tsavo when he was tasked with turning this vast patch of wilderness into Kenya’s first National Park. To David and Daphne, Tsavo represented an extraordinary (yet completely irresistible) conservation challenge — but to me, as a young child, it was simply home. I still see it that way. It has been such a privilege to raise my own family in Tsavo, and to now continue my parents’ legacy here with my family by my side.
In true Daphne fashion, my mother bottled the potent magic of Tsavo through her words:
"Those that have once tasted Tsavo’s enchantment find it addictive and can never again escape its spell. They are drawn back, as though by a magnet, to savour the solace that it imparts to the soul. There, stepping back in time, we glimpse the world of yesterday — and we will be reminded that we share it with many other creatures who are also a part of creation with a specific purpose to their being, a vital link in the chain of life."
Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with members of our team, please subscribe here.