Natural Habitat Adventures celebrates the life of a remarkable woman and champion of elephant conservation, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who passed away at the age of 83 this month. Daphne created the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in 1977, naming it after her late husband who was a founding warden of Tsavo East, Kenya’s largest national park. From humble beginnings, the Trust has grown to become one of the most notable conservation organizations in East Africa. The organization has been at the forefront of many initiatives, including anti-poaching efforts and the safeguarding of habitats, veterinary assistance to wounded wildlife, and conservation education in communities and schools.
At the heart of the Trust’s work is the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintroduction of orphaned elephants into the wild. The Orphans’ Project, founded by Daphne, has achieved enormous successes, having rescued and hand-reared more than 230 orphaned elephants, along with black rhinos and other wildlife in need of aid. Daphne was known for being determined to never turn away an animal, always maintaining hope that an infant could recover. With compassionate care, Daphne inspired the grieving elephants, who’d lost their families and often their will to live, to continue on. She was the first person to perfect the milk formula needed for milk-dependent calves to survive, successfully rearing new-born elephants and rhinos through their fragile first months. Thanks to Daphne, there are now 100 orphaned elephants who have been reintegrated into the wild herds of Tsavo, and 29 wild calves born to former orphans so far. Nat Hab guests traveling on our Kenya safaris have the opportunity to visit the orphanage on our Extra Day in Nairobi extension. Nat Hab makes a donation to the orphanage’s fostering program for each guest who visits, so our travelers are able to “adopt” an elephant calf and follow their journey through regular updates.
The infants that come to the elephant orphanage have often lost their mothers to poaching. An avid advocate against the ivory and horn trade, Daphne was a leading voice in protecting elephants and rhinos under threat. An emblem of conservation, she strove each day to preserve the wild lands of Kenya she called home, finding innovative strategies to combat habitat loss caused by deforestation and human encroachment. She collaborated with conservation partners and the Maasai community to secure rangelands and migratory corridors for elephants. During a drought last year, in which 300 elephants in Tsavo East died of starvation, her charity worked tirelessly to care for the excess of incoming orphans while trucking in food from every corner of the country to distribute to wild elephants in need. Daphne was so much more than a woman who cared for wildlife: she was a mother to the baby elephants who had lost their own, a fierce defender of the weak and vulnerable, and a voice for those creatures who could not speak for themselves.
Daphne was an elephant empath in every sense. She understood the emotional depth elephants possess and the lasting memories imprinted in their minds. In tune with their behaviors, she recognized them as intelligent, sensitive, highly social creatures. In a 2008 interview with 60 Minutes, Daphne commented on the most extraordinary quality of elephants: “Their tremendous capacity for caring is, I think, perhaps the most amazing thing about them, even at a very, very young age.” Daphne, who cared for elephants for more than 60 years, is a pure reflection of this capacity. DSWT’s statement on her passing said that “Daphne lived alongside elephants and learned to read their hearts, much as they read ours–she understood their fragility, their intelligence, their capacity to love, to grieve, to heal, and to support one another.” Her incredible connection to the baby elephants, for which she cared so faithfully, highlighted her devotion to their cause. This devotion is mirrored by the Trust’s Keepers who care for the infants 24 hours a day, sleeping with them each night on a rotational basis, covering them with blankets and rain gear when cold or wet, and rubbing sunscreen on their sensitive ears. The keeper, always by the infant’s side, acts as the elephant’s adoptive family, and the trust developed between the two is enduring.
Born in Kenya on June 4, 1934, Daphne’s devotion to wildlife lasted a lifetime. She grew up surrounded by animals and soon began lovingly and patiently hand-rearing injured and orphaned wildlife. Her dedication rendered her an international authority on the care of wild creatures, and over the years, Daphne has received global attention for her conservation efforts. She was appointed as Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II and was awarded a Moran of the Burning Spear by the Kenyan government. She received an Honorary Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from Glasgow University and was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the BBC. Documentaries, including the BBC’s Elephant Diaries and IMAX’s Born to Be Wild, showcase her life’s work at the elephant orphanage and the incredible stories of survival. A beautiful writer, Daphne’s personal narratives can be found in four books included her most recent autobiography, Love, Life, and Elephants – An African Love Story.
In a 2017 Newsletter celebrating the Trust’s 40th anniversary, Daphne remarked on a difficult year fighting breast cancer and cited her conviction in the dedicated staff who strive to ensure the orphanage’s future: “I remain confident that my and David’s life work, which is so dear to me, will continue long after I am gone.” With the passing of the founding matriarch, Daphne’s daughter continues her legacy, running the Trust with her husband and children. We celebrate Daphne’s remarkable achievements as a protector of the wildlife and wild lands of Kenya, a woman who influenced the world’s understanding of elephants. She is remembered for her passion and drive, her unwavering commitment to elephants and her steadfast resolve to help any animal in need. Her hopeful vision for the future of the orphans she loved so dearly will continue for generations to come.