A Journey Through Past & Present

Published on the 24th of November, 2022

This was a drought year — and not just any drought, but one of the worst to strike Kenya in decades. In many ways, it felt like time stood still. Weeks turned into months, and still discouragingly open skies stretched before us with nary a cloud on the horizon. As we braced ourselves for the worst of the drought and prayed for rain on the other side, it often felt like this period would never end.

And yet, for all its challenges, life marched on. Uncertainty is the only constant in conservation; there is no crystal ball that can predict whether the day will bring an orphan rescue, a field emergency, a fire to fight… or all of the above! A drought year certainly added a level of urgency to our work, creating its own unique emergencies in the process. But in most ways, our work continued just as it has for 45 years. While we will always be at the mercy of mother nature and mankind, those two factors that can change the course of a single day or refocus the broader scope of our efforts, the core functions of our conservation work remain a constant.

That constancy inspired me to take a trip down memory lane, exploring the foundations that shaped what the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is today.

(And I send this to you with good news: The rains have finally arrived in Tsavo, bringing much needed relief to creatures who have been barely hanging on for months. It is miraculous to see how quickly the bone-dry landscape bursts into life, as every good storm leaves a blanket of green in its wake. We still need more rain, but things are finally looking up.)

– Angela Sheldrick

A majestic tusker of Tsavo, circa 1964, which were once ubiquitous in the landscape

A Journey Through Past and Present

"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. Then thinking of the wonders all around us, we become mindful also of a great responsibility that has been vested in us, the responsibility to keep the chain of life intact, for to break a link is to jeopardise our own survival and that of many other creatures too. Suddenly things fall into place and we begin to understand a little more about living, and a little more about ourselves."

– Daphne Sheldrick, writing about Tsavo

Tuskers suffered a blow during the poaching crisis, but their genes live on and they are making a comeback

This year marks the Trust’s 45th anniversary, but our conservation story dates back to the first half of the twentieth century. In 1948, my father, David Sheldrick, was appointed the founding warden of Tsavo East National Park. David was ahead of his time in so many ways; he was a passionate naturalist, with an ambitious vision for habitat preservation and wildlife conservation.

Enormous elephant herds were a common sight in my father's day

This was before poaching had decimated elephant and rhino populations across Africa. During his aerial patrols, it was a common sight for David to see aggregate elephant herds numbering well into the thousands. As a child, I remember how the park was teeming with rhinos; you could barely go a kilometre without an encounter.

We are seeing a promising uptick in elephant populations — this herd was sighted earlier this month

While we will never recover populations of days gone by, I know David and his team would be proud of the progress made today. While elephants are endangered across the continent, their numbers have been climbing in Tsavo. The catastrophic poaching era of the late 1970s to early 1990s saw their population plummet to 6,000. Today, there are estimated to be 15,000-16,000 elephants in Tsavo. Drought years like this do take their toll, but there are signs of hope: Where rain has recently fallen, our pilots have seen large breeding herds that number into the hundreds beginning to aggregate, which is a most welcome sight.

Back in the 60s, David recognised that a strong aerial presence was essential to protect an area the size of Tsavo

Even back then, David and his team recognised the fragility of our natural world. Beginning in the 1960s, they started extensive anti-poaching campaigns in the landscape. Showing remarkable prescience, David put great emphasis on aerial patrols. Today, his grandsons and other talented pilots fly over the same landscape he covered more than 60 years ago.

We continue to operate on the ground and in the air, enhancing our work through our Aerial Unit

It is difficult to grasp the vastness of Tsavo. It is Kenya’s largest National Park and a relic from an ancient world, one where wildlife still reigns. David and his team realised that connectivity was paramount to successful conservation in the landscape. They set about creating infrastructure in harmony with the wilderness, including a network of roads that became vital arteries for field teams stationed in the park. In these early days, roads had to first be cut by hand, with no elaborate equipment available to clear huge swathes of dense commiphora bush.

When David was appointed Park Warden, Tsavo didn't have any infrastructure

Planning the road network was all done on foot, which was an extremely dangerous undertaking — back then, Tsavo was home to some 8,000 black rhinos, which could come hurtling out of the bush at any moment. I recall many dramatic stories of rangers scaling trees or anthills in an effort to escape charging rhinos. One ranger was even dragged for 800 metres by a rhino, its horn hooked between his webbing belt. Fortunately, and miraculously, his story had a happy ending.

Creating a vast network of roads was difficult, dangerous work

Through the sands of time, many of David’s original routes in the remote northern area of Tsavo fell into disrepair. However, the tourism lull during the pandemic provided a perfect window for the Trust to concentrate its support and help rehabilitate northern Tsavo’s infrastructure — and as a result, hundreds of kilometres of old roads were resurrected. These paths are not a relic of the past, but a reminder of how much in conservation is timeless. Rhinos may no longer pop out from around every corner, but much remains unchanged. Age-old routes provide vital connectivity, unlocking parts of the park for security field teams and visitors alike. During the drought, enhanced accessibility made a world of difference, as teams ramped up patrols and responded to an increase in field emergencies.

Today, our teams follow the same paths that David and his team forged nearly 80 years ago

Much of these field emergencies are echoes of the past. New eras usher in new threats — first poaching, now human-wildlife conflict — but there has always been, and will always be, animals in need of help. David and his team were masters in outside-the-box thinking, be it charting complex ambushes to catch poachers or rigging up clever ways to rescue elephants from drying waterholes.

David and his team saving a stuck elephant in the mid-1900s

We apply that same outside-the-box thinking to everything we do today. This year stretched even the most imaginative mind, as the drought brought unique challenges to the fore. Countless creatures got stuck in muddy mires, but none more so than elephants. From a set of elephants to a mum and baby, our teams moved heaven and earth to save giant lives. Just this week, they dug an emergency exit for two giraffes trapped in a trench — and rescued a surprise orphan in the process.

Today's rescue missions look much the same — this was a recent, successful operation to free two elephants

And that brings me to our beginnings: the orphans. It was in Tsavo that David met Daphne, sparking a great love — but even more so, a magnificent partnership, the meeting of two people who were far ahead of their time.

The earliest orphaned elephants were raised in Tsavo, where our Voi Reintegration Unit stands today

As David and Daphne built upon a shared vision of conservation, they also raised the first elephant orphans, creating the basis for what would become our pioneering Orphans’ Project. Near their field headquarters, they constructed the first stockades, which still stand today as part of our Voi Reintegration Unit. Today, Voi continues to be home to many of our orphans, and to new generations of elephants, as ex-orphans and their wild-born babies visit periodically.

Voi is still going strong, helping generations of elephants reclaim their place in the wild and start their own families

Daphne and David created a life together in Voi. I was born and raised in Tsavo East, growing up alongside an eclectic assortment of orphaned wildlife. My wild upbringing continued in Nairobi National Park, where we moved in 1976.

I was raised among a menagerie of creatures, from elephants to rhinos to buffalos

But tragedy struck the following year, when David died of a heart attack. While his life was cut short, Daphne was determined that his legacy live on. She founded the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in his memory. She also established the Nairobi Nursery, creating a home for Kenya’s infant orphaned elephants and further honing the husbandry to successfully raise them.

I am proud to carry on her legacy, raising an equally eclectic orphan herd alongside my team

To date, we have successfully raised more than 300 orphaned elephants, along with an assortment of rhinos, giraffes, and other wildlife. From the Nursery’s humble beginnings, we now have five orphan locations, including three Reintegration Units from where older orphans reclaim their place in the wild.

Daphne standing among a herd of orphaned elephants raised by her hand

Daphne always said that her greatest wish was to see offspring born to orphans raised by our hand. That wish has been delivered 53 times over that we know of, and of course there are many more out there — and the baby boom is just beginning. We already have 'great-grandkids' in Voi, and we just sprouted that new branch on our Ithumba family tree, meeting the first calf born to the offspring of an orphan raised there.

In Tsavo, wild elephants mingle seamlessly with our orphans

In difficult years like this one, the orphans help me keep things in perspective: While fate brought them into our care, they grow up blissfully sheltered. As the drought swept across Kenya, they remained stalwartly consumed by their own daily dramas: Who got the first milk bottle? What mysterious creature is hiding in the bush? Is the feed store really as impenetrable as it seems?

Raised as they should be, orphaned elephants spend their infancy blissfully unaware of the wider world

It is our privilege to shield these little creatures through their infancy, allowing them to fully indulge in the minutiae. Reality will set in, as it does for all of us. But in the meantime, we can give these orphans the carefree, loving upbringing that every youngster deserves. All the while, we are working across Kenya to protect their wild counterparts and preserve the habitats they will one day call home.

It is for these little creatures that we are working so hard to secure a better future

This is the work David and Daphne began more than 45 years ago. Working alongside my family and our incredible team, I am proud to bring their vision into the future. The world has changed enormously since the Trust’s inception. But in the ways that matter, it remains exactly the same.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

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