Empathy in the Wild

Published on the 24th of June, 2021

Every day comes with its own adventures here in Kenya. It was a predictably hectic Sunday when I was contacted about a speared crocodile in the Mara earlier this month. The SWT/KWS Mara Mobile Veterinary Unit hastily mobilised a treatment, hoping for the best but well aware of the challenges that lay ahead.

The story that unfolded that afternoon was remarkable, for so many reasons. I relay the full account below, but also wanted to use this month’s Field Notes for a greater reflection on empathy in the wild. Today, we are programmed to think of the natural world as separate from our own. If you are reading this, I feel sure that you also see the error in that mindset. All creatures are connected by something great and mysterious. The stories I share below prove just how interlinked we all are, if only we take the time to connect with the wild.

– Angela Sheldrick

Empathy in the Wild

“Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery, man ceases to be man.” - Henry Beston, writer and naturalist.

On the surface, a chasm separates us from our natural world. Even our own lexicon supports that division: man versus beast, human versus animal, civilised versus wild. And of course, to a degree, it is true. For better or for worse, humans have emerged as the dominant species on our planet. However, we must never lose sight of our natural world. As Beston says, nature shapes our humanity; just like all the other creatures who walk this earth, it makes us who we are.

Spending a life close to nature has confirmed my belief that we, all living species, share a deep understanding that transcends everything else. This connection to our wild brethren is always there, if we only take the time to honour it. Countless stories remind me of this — and, perhaps predictably, many of them feature elephants, but not all. Sometimes this is brought sharply into focus by the most unlikely of creatures.

Ndugu was a wild bull who became like a brother to our Umani herd

There was Ndugu, a wild bull who roamed the Kibwezi Forest. During his early visits, he shadowed the Umani Springs orphans from a distance, clearly intrigued by the motley herd of elephants with their men who cared for them. Over the years, this curiosity blossomed into a touching friendship. Ndugu means ‘brother’ in Swahili, and he really became that to our orphans. When his journeys brought him through the Kibwezi Forest, he often spent his days alongside the orphans, sometimes even escorting them home and sleeping outside the stockades. When the ‘nightclubbers’ began exploring their independence and spending nights out in the forest, Ndugu frequently served as their chaperone. It must have been so reassuring for the orphans to be guided by such a wise, gentle presence as they took this next step.

Ndugu spent his last moments on earth in the safety of the unusual family he had come to embrace

Ndugu had not been raised by the hands of man — indeed, a fear of our kind must have been instilled in him since birth — yet he never threatened the Keepers because he understood and respected the pivotal role they play in their unconventional herd. Last year, after an absence of several weeks, the Keepers were dismayed to find Ndugu standing by the mud bath, clearly in great pain. It appeared that he had been in a clash with another bull, leaving him gravely wounded. We called in our Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, and Dr. Poghon was able to walk directly up to Ndugu and dart him with the anaesthetic, which is usually something that must be undertaken from a safe distance.

Tragically, and despite our team’s best efforts, Ndugu succumbed to his injuries. He left a great hole in the lives of the orphans and Keepers who saw him as a brother. The feeling was clearly mutual. He came to us in his hour of need, seeking help. While his story ended too soon, he spent his last moments on earth in the safety of the unusual family who he had come to embrace. What a privilege it is, to be accepted and respected by such a magnificent creature.

'Dad' is a striking bull and father to at least two of our orphans' wild-born babies

Remarkably, this scenario has played out time and again, and thankfully often with much happier endings. In 2015, after a yearlong absence, a wild bull we have come to know as ‘Dad’ returned to Ithumba in the company of two friends. The Keepers soon realised that all three were sporting septic wounds from poisoned arrows. Dad knew that, if they returned to the stockades, they would receive the help and treatment they so desperately needed — and he made the decision to bring his friends there, even after being harmed at the hands of humans. Because of Dad’s faith in us, we were able to treat all three bulls before the poison completed its nefarious work, and they made a full recovery. This is but one humbling moment among many dozens that have transpired over the years.

A crocodile was found on the Mara with a long spear puncturing his back

And this brings me back to the remarkable story that unfolded on the Mara River just a few weeks ago. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we received a report from the Lemek Conservancy in the northern tip of the Mara, where a large crocodile had been sighted with a two-metre long spear penetrating his back. It was an unimaginably painful and life-threatening situation for the giant reptile. Our Mara Mobile Veterinary Unit rushed to the scene, where they found him resting on the riverbank.

It required a very ingenious solution — not to mention the might of several full-grown men — to remove the spear

It was shaping up to be a very challenging treatment. The river was brimming with wildlife, with the cacophony of hippo grunts reminding the team of the perils that lurked beneath the water’s surface. Given his size and location, capturing the crocodile was not an option. Aside from his formidable size, the bank was treacherously steep and the Mara River was flowing fast.

However, our teams are never one to back down from a challenge. Thinking fast, they devised a rather ingenious plan to use a long stick to lower a capture rope over the crocodile and hook the spear. Conscious of the possibility that, once hooked, the crocodile could lurch into the water and bring those holding the rope along with him, they secured the rope to a sturdy tree along the riverbank first. While this precaution was prudent, it didn’t prove to be necessary: Incredibly, the crocodile remained on the riverbank amidst all the commotion, as he understood that it was all unfolding for his benefit.

Rather than swim away immediately, the newly freed crocodile took a moment to acknowledge his rescuers

After several failed attempts, hope was fading, but the crocodile’s patience didn’t waver. Although a small crowd had gathered on the banks just above him, he remained remarkably calm. At last, with a stroke of luck, the rope was able to hook the spear. It took the might of many, but pulling together, they managed to draw the spear out of the crocodile’s back. Free at last, the crocodile slipped into the waters. He could have very easily swam off — and, given how he was injured by humans in the first place, one would hardly blame him for wanting to make a speedy getaway. Instead he remained just offshore floating for a minute, gazing back at his rescuers. Everyone present said it was as if he was showing gratitude to the people who had relieved him of his excruciating pain.

As this crocodile reminds me, all creatures are capable of empathy and understanding. It just falls upon us to connect with and respect the other creatures with whom we share our home. This is not an act of charity, but a benefit to our world and to ourselves: To revisit Beston’s words, without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery that is nature, man ceases to be man.

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 be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please subscribe here.

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