The Work of Generations

Published on the 28th of April, 2022

As we celebrate our 45th anniversary, I cannot help but reflect upon elephants. This is a species whose lives mirror our own. It is an enormous responsibility that spans decades. 45 years sees an elephant into its prime.

For this issue of Field Notes, I took a step back in time, reflecting on the moments that shaped the organisation we are today. As you read, remember the important role you play in this ongoing story – for without you, none of this would be possible.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Work of Generations

We always say that the elephants very much found us. In fact, it began with a single orphan and a bedroom. In 1987, Daphne was approached by WCMD, Kenya’s wildlife authority at the time, to care for a tiny calf who had been orphaned at the hands of ivory poachers. Olmeg, as he was called, arrived in a pitiful state: He was barely a month old, with a compromised stomach, septic umbilicus, serious diarrhoea, and parched, sun-damaged skin.

Daphne was the right person for the job, given her unique experience raising the species from her Tsavo days. However, she was totally unprepared for a little orphan to enter the fold. Today, we have stables and stockades, a team of Keepers and all the equipment. Back then, it was just Daphne and my sister, Jill. This didn’t stop them; my mother would never turn around a creature in need. Jill’s bedroom turned into a makeshift stable, and Daphne and Jill became full-time Keepers (on top of running the Trust!).

In a way, their unpreparedness helped Olmeg and all the orphans who would follow in their footsteps. He was a tricky little charge, newly born and very hesitant to accept his bottle. There was a tent in the garden and, surprisingly, it performed a miracle. We discovered that Olmeg gravitated underneath the tent, because it reminded him of his mother. That was the birth of the blanket technique, and the realisation that an infant’s trunk must rest on something to encourage it to feed. This method has helped save the lives of hundreds of orphaned elephants.

We had no plan after Olmeg. We could not have possibly imagined that he would be the first in a long line of orphans who would come into our care over the years — nor that those orphans would go on to have their own wild babies, creating new generations of elephants in the process.

David was always focused on the bigger picture. His work was not about arresting a single poacher or saving one elephant, but rather a long-term vision for conservation. Daphne was the same way. As more orphans came into our care, she realised that it was futile to rescue them if they did not have a viable, fully wild future ahead of them. So, as we raised our early orphans, we also sought out ways to secure the wider landscape and, as David would say, “protect the bigger picture.”

In 1999, we had the opportunity to further this vision and expand our partnership with KWS by creating our first Anti-Poaching Team in the Tsavo Conservation Area. Establishing a boots-on-the-field presence proved prescient, as the ivory poaching crisis soon swept across Africa. It was a heartbreaking time, with many of the orphans we rescued losing their families to the ivory trade. Some saw their mothers gunned down before their very eyes.

Our Anti-Poaching Teams went into overdrive, working with the Kenya Wildlife Service and other field partners to help curb this trend. It was a challenging, dangerous time to be a ranger, tracking shadow perpetrators across the wilderness. However, their efforts paid off: While ivory poaching will always be a lurking threat, we no longer see anywhere near the number of deaths or injuries related to ivory poaching attempts.

Of course, one must never get complacent. New threats are constantly rising to the fore, namely, human-wildlife conflict and bushmeat poaching. Once the giants of our world were in the poachers’ crosshairs; now it is the tiny dik diks and impalas, giraffes and buffalos who are targeted for their meat. Poachers employ all sorts of cruel methods to catch them, from snaring (using rope or wire nooses that catch passing creatures) to lamping (hunting at night using lights that blind the animal). Just as conservation partners came together to eradicate ivory poaching, now we are tackling new rising threats. Today, we have 22 Anti-Poaching Teams patrolling the landscape, along with a Canine Unit.

Working in the field, one must be agile. Even the best laid plans are disrupted by the whims of mother nature or an unexpected development. These moments can change the course of a day — or shape the entire future of our conservation projects.

Our first Mobile Veterinary Unit was born from one such revelation in 2003. During their early patrols, our Anti-Poaching Teams were coming across a number of zebras and giraffes who had been caught in snares. While many creatures had already met their fate, several were still alive. Much as they wanted to help, our rangers could not intervene without risking life and limb. This was a job for a vet.

At the time, vets were thin on the ground in Kenya’s prized ecosystems. KWS recognised the need for a rapid response, and thus our SWT/KWS Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit came to be. Given the menaces on the ground, from snaring to ivory poaching, it made an immediate impact in the Tsavo landscape. With KWS, we began to expand this vision, identifying other wilderness areas that would benefit from a veterinary presence. Thus our Mara, Meru, Amboseli, Mount Kenya, and most recently, Rift Valley Units followed in Tsavo’s footsteps. Now, Kenya’s key landscapes are covered, and our aerial Sky Vets initiative offers coverage in remote areas across the country. From these humble beginnings, more than 8,400 veterinary cases have been taken on, saving thousands of wild lives in the process.

The launch of our Aerial Unit took our operations to the next level — quite literally. Every day, we are astonished by the impact our pilots make. They complement our ground teams in the most extraordinary way, building on their forensic approach with capabilities that can only be achieved in the sky. Through their daily patrols, they cover swathes of wilderness and discover conservation threats, illegal activities, and wildlife in need that could only be identified through an aerial perspective. They can drop rangers where no car can access or deliver a vet to a wild animal whose life is on the line. Our Aerial Unit supports all manner of operations, from transporting orphans to fighting fires, assisting vet operations to mitigating human-wildlife conflict. They have even saved human lives, performing medevacs in emergency situations.

Standing at the centre of Kenya’s last remaining wildernesses, it is easy to forget that these places are as endangered as the creatures that live within. While we are based in a country that values conservation, nothing can halt the march of mankind’s expanding footprint. We recognised this from the outset, and over the years, have made it a priority to secure precious habitats before they are lost forever.

No single person or player can conduct conservation work on this scale. We proudly collaborate with community and government partners to protect and manage these ecosystems. It is challenging, ‘big picture’ work, but nature repays us for our efforts: One only needs to see rainfall returning to the Kibwezi Forest, or elephants circling deep back into Galana Ranch, to recognise its gratitude.

When David and Daphne were forging a future for Tsavo from 1948-1976, they faced a very different climate. Back then, the conversation around elephants was a very different one, with culling to curb numbers even being suggested in some quarters. Orphans were only rescued within protected areas, because there simply was not the sentiment amongst communities and they were never reported in the first place.

All that has changed over the years. As elephant numbers plummeted, people rallied around the fight to save elephants, with more and more Kenyans becoming passionate advocates for their country’s natural heritage. Not only are they the first to raise the alarm about an animal in need, but they also roll up their sleeves and step in to help. While challenges remain, there has been an increasingly wonderful shift in attitudes towards our natural world.

We have always recognised the vital role communities play in conservation. In order to secure a future for wildlife, one must also support the people who live alongside them. We are proud to engage local communities in all aspects of our work, improving livelihoods and fostering an appreciation for conservation in the process.

The very greatest ambassadors are our employees. These men and women move mountains every single day. The same love a Keeper pours into an orphaned elephant, our field teams put into saving an injured animal or nursing a habitat back from the brink. I am constantly astonished by the bravery, compassion, and absolute commitment of the men and women who make up the Trust. They truly are the best of humanity.

As we look to the next 45 years, I think back to the past. I grew up on the red earth of Tsavo, surrounded by an eclectic band of orphaned wildlife as the hum of a patrolling Super Cub filled the air. That little girl could never have envisioned how everything would circle back. As much as the world has changed, so much of the Trust’s work remains exactly the same. There are orphans to be fed, habitats to be patrolled, wild animals to be saved.

45 years from now, the elephants we are raising today will be in the prime of their lives. For us, the world may look unrecognisable in that time, but for Kenya’s elephants, it is my hope that the fundamentals will remain unchanged. Today’s orphans will be the kings and queens of Tsavo. Some will be matriarchs, others will be massive tuskers. They will be parents several times over, even grandparents or great-grandparents. And on they will go, just as they have done for millennia — all because one life was saved, many years ago. This is the work of generations at play.

Discover 45 Years of Conservation

In honour of the Trust's milestone anniversary, I am proud to share our new publication celebrating 45 years of conservation. Within its pages, you will find a timeline of the Trust's work, information about all our field projects, quotes from members of our team, and gorgeous, as-yet-unseen photos.

This is the work of generations.

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 below.
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