The Human-Elephant Connection

Published on the 26th of November, 2020

As we embark on the holiday season, family takes centre stage. I have always had a rather eclectic family, both two-footed and four. My husband, Robert, and sons, Taru and Roan, but also an extended group of loved ones and the unique privilege of calling elephants family, just as my mother did before me.

Rescuing an orphaned elephant is an emotional investment that spans a lifetime — for when they embrace you as family, they never let you go. It is a calling that comes with enormous highs but also devastating lows. However, for all the heartbreak, I would not change it for the world. With fortune on their side, elephants live upwards of three score and ten years, much like ourselves. To see them through their most formative years is an immense honour and responsibility.

This month, join me in celebrating family in all its forms as we explore the human-elephant connection.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Human-Elephant Connection

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. 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.”

It feels most apt to begin with this quote by Henry Beston, a writer and naturalist whom my mother greatly admired. For one cannot be the family to an elephant unless you appreciate them as equals and understand that they have realms we can only marvel at. Elephants are complex, emotional creatures. They feel keenly and love deeply. After a lifetime with elephants, I no longer see them as a separate species, but as kindred spirits. I know my mother felt the same, as do the Keepers who raise our orphaned elephants.

Daphne with Aisha, a baby who forever touched her heart

Among all the elephants who have touched our lives, Aisha stands out. She came into my parents’ care in 1974, when I was just a child. This was before Daphne had cracked the code for neonate milk formula, and as this calf was just days old, it seemed impossible that she could survive. However, Daphne never backed down from a challenge, saying, “I loved Aisha as my own child, for when one is mother to a little elephant, the commitment must be total and come straight from the heart.”

Through Aisha, Daphne found a successful milk formula, one that our orphans benefit from to this day. She also, at heartbreaking cost, showed us the emotional complexity of elephants. She and Daphne developed an unbreakable bond, and when my mother was away in Nairobi for my sister's wedding, Aisha — despite being well taken care of — pined for my mother and fell into a deep depression. Her physical condition deteriorated rapidly and she passed away. Daphne’s own heart was forever cracked by the loss of Aisha; for the rest of her life, she couldn’t speak of this little elephant without welling up with tears.

After we see them through their darkest beginnings, our orphaned elephants go on to have very happy endings

Every orphan leaves an indelible impact, but there are some who touch your soul and transcend the human-elephant divide. My mother certainly had that relationship with Aisha and also with Olmeg, the first orphan raised at the Nairobi Nursery. I had a special bond with Ndololo. He was born blind and had a delightfully crooked tail that reached the ground. He learned how to follow the tapping sound of a cane, and he would join me and my children for walks out in the forest. Without sight, his other senses were more acute and he was very emotionally needy, which of course made me all the more attached to him given how vulnerable he was. He was with us for three months before he took a turn for the worse. There was not a dry eye at the Nursery when he slipped away before our eyes.

But the truth is, there have been many who have stolen my heart completely over the years, and thankfully most of them have very happy endings. Many even have their own babies today, as they forge a wild life together with their friends.

Raising an orphaned elephant is a family affair, just as it is in the wild

In the wild, raising an elephant calf is a family affair. The same applies to our orphans. That is where our Keepers come in, providing the love and support these babies need to thrive. For, just like with humans, elephants’ formative years influence the creatures they become as adults. When they grow up feeling loved, they are able to embody those values as adults, nurturing their own families in the same manner.

Also similar to humans, not all elephant emotions are lofty. While they have immense capacity for love, they are equally capable of being petty, jealous, and sometimes even mean. They can hold grudges and have vendettas. This is not a mark against their character, but rather an illustration of just how emotionally complex they are. Sometimes, the babies develop crushes on an individual Keeper. This can quickly escalate into a challenging environment, as they bicker over who gets precious moments with their favourite. Our Keepers are master diplomats, ensuring that every orphan feels special and singled out.

Elephants have a complex range of emotions, much like ourselves

We often say that orphans select their Keepers. I was reminiscing with Benjamin Kyalo, our Ithumba Head Keeper, about his own recruitment, which took place over two decades ago. As he remembers, “I was nervous, especially when I saw another five individuals there. I wondered how I was going to shine above the rest and paced up and down waiting for my turn. I was most surprised when I was told to put on a uniform and go out into the bush with the Keepers, elephants, and the other men. We were given a month for the elephants to decide which four men out of the six remained. The elephants performed the interview, because they can read your heart.”

Like myself, my sons Taru (pictured) and Roan have grown up with elephants as part of their family

That is the crux of it. Elephants truly can read your heart — and when you have earned their love, they never forget it. We are reminded of this through the 37 babies our ex orphans have introduced us to, often mere moments after giving birth to them. Although they are now fully wild, they still choose to share these milestones with the people who raised them. This even applies to bulls, who are more independent by nature.

Elephants have that remarkable, intuitive ability to truly read one's heart

Ndume serves as a poignant reminder of this. In 1989, when he was just two months old, he saw most of his herd killed, and narrowly survived being bludgeoned to death himself. He was frantic and distraught when he arrived at the Nursery, and it took him many months to overcome the trauma he endured at the hands of humans. However, he didn’t bear a grudge against all mankind — again, we must marvel at elephants and their generosity of spirit — and grew to embrace his Keepers as family.

Fast forward 26 years, when I received reports of an unusually friendly adult bull who was frequenting a camp along the Voi River. Based on photos, we suspected it might be Ndume, so I arranged for Misheck Nzimbi, who raised him through the Nursery, and Joseph Sauni, who rehabilitated him through our Voi Reintegration Unit, to visit the scene. It had been nearly a decade since his last visit, so we wondered what would happen. The moment they drove up, Ndume raised his magnificent head in their direction. He immediately recognised them and made a beeline for the vehicle, rumbling with delight. It was as happy a reunion as you would see between any long-absent family.

How blessed am I to be part of this human-elephant family?

Family is everything to elephants. Love is their north star, guiding and dictating everything they do. We are constantly reminded of this: Mini matriarchs enveloping new rescues in a warm trunk embrace, knowing how scared and vulnerable they must be. Orphans protective of newcomers with disabilities, making daily sacrifices to accommodate their needs. Orphans bravely forming a wall around their Keepers to protect them from wildlife they encounter in the bush. Ex orphans proudly striding into the stockades to introduce us to their newborn babies. To earn the love of an elephant is an immense privilege — and it is a true love, one that lasts a lifetime.

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.

Share the article