Dame Daphne Sheldrick. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Dame Daphne Sheldrick is quite unlike many women. For one, she's not shy about mentioning her age. "I am 76", is one of the first things she tells me when I contact her requesting an interview. She's also perfectly happy living in the middle of a jungle - away from most luxuries, in some cases even necessities.

An author, conservationist and expert in animal husbandry, what truly sets Dame Daphne apart is her love for large mammals such as elephants, rhinos and hippos. So committed is she to save and protect elephants, she has made it her life's mission to raise and reintegrate orphaned elephants into the wild.

For more than 25 years, she worked alongside her late husband, David Sheldrick (founder warden of Kenya's Tsavo National Park.) Together they raised and rehabilitated many a species including elephants, black rhinos, buffaloes, zebra, impala, warthogs and smaller animals such as civets, mongooses and birds.

David's death in 1977 didn't dampen Dame Daphne's commitment to their drive. She continued to live and work within Nairobi National Park. She spearheaded a movement where she successfully hand-reared more than 70 newborn elephant orphans, some just a few hours old. It was a pioneering venture in the field of wild animal rehabilitation.

Growing up with animals

"It's probably because I grew up with animals, both domestic and wild," says Dame Daphne, attempting to explain her love for animals. Born and raised on a farm in Kenya's Rift Valley, where her father worked, her first encounter with animals was before she could even walk.

"My mother used to put me in the box that housed a cat and her kittens, and I would sit there for hours holding and playing with the kittens and watching them and their mother."

Those were not the only pets she had. While most children play with soft toys, Daphne spent her childhood communing with real animals, mostly orphaned brought in by farm workers.

Dame Daphne completed her matriculation with honours from Kenya High School. In 1950, turning down a scholarship to attend university, she opted to marry David Sheldrick, who was the warden of Tsavo National Park in Kenya where she would often volunteer.

She says that David was her biggest influence and guiding force. Together they took up causes like rearing wild orphaned animals, fighting for more compassionate handling of both domestic and wild animals, (particularly of elephants in zoos and circuses) and they battled against the abuse of animals, both domestic and wild.

After David's death his widow established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to perpetuate their combined passion.

"David turned a barren semi-desert scrubland known as the Taru Desert into what is today the highest revenue earning park in Kenya," says Dame Daphne. "It is home to the largest single population of wild elephants."

The Trust successfully hand-reared more than 130 orphaned infant elephants, something that had hitherto not been done. It was also the first time that elephants hand-reared from early infancy had been successfully returned to the wild. All the orphans reared by the Trust end up as wild elephants. Their distinctive skill is they will always remember and recognise the individuals who were their surrogate human family after they lost their natural one.

Dame Daphne is convinced that the adage - an elephant never forgets - is true. "It is something that has been scientifically proven."

"Once while David and I were walking in the bushes with some orphaned elephants [that he'd reared in Tsavo], one of the orphans whose mother had died during the great drought of 1970 recognised members of her elephant family again, and rushed to greet them. Although she had been with us for over three years, she could remember the group. In minutes the others accepted her and they were a happy family again. It was such a touching moment it brought tears to our eyes."

With both parents dedicated to serving the mighty beasts, it was only natural for their daughter Angela to follow their vast footsteps. For the past nine years, Angela Sheldrick has taken over the reins from her mother and heads the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

"Wildlife, wild places and a great appreciation and respect for nature and all forms of life are what were instilled into me from a very early age," she says. "Having been brought up in this environment I have a strong aesthetic sense and a love of beauty, which one is surrounded by in the natural world."

Funds spent wisely

Since its inception, the Trust has played a significant role in Kenya's conservation efforts. As David was a strong protagonist against extravagance, there is great emphasis on minimal expenditure and all donations are dispensed in a practical and positive manner.

The Trust has an orphan's project where you can adopt a baby elephant or rhino until it can be rehabilitated into the wild.

It also has a mobile veterinary unit that covers Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Park and the nearby ranches and dispersal areas.

With the cooperation of the Kenyan Wildlife Authority, the Trust has employed many successful de-snaring teams who continually work in the Tsavo National Park with the aim of preventing illegal bushmeat activities.

Extending its range of consideration to humans, the initiative's Community Outreach Programme has a project whereby donors can support educational initiatives in Kenya, which extends to adopting a whole school.

Dame Daphne has a long list of achievements and honours to her credit. She was decorated by the Queen in 1989 with an MBE, elevated to the United Nations Environment Programme's elite Global 500 Roll of Honour in 1992, (she was among the first 500 people worldwide to have been accorded this particular honour).

In 2002, she received the BBC's Lifetime Achievement Award. In the November 2005 issue of Smithsonian magazine she was named as one of 35 people worldwide who have made a difference in terms of animal husbandry and wildlife conservation.

In the 2006 New Year's Honours List, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Dr Daphne Sheldrick to Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, (the first knighthood to be awarded in Kenya since the country received independence in 1963).

"Recognition is, of course, important to the work of the Trust, but to me personally, it doesn't mean much," says Dame Daphne.

She is recognised internationally as an authority on both the African elephant and the black rhinoceros. There's even a BBC documentary, Elephant Diaries, detailing her work with the orphaned elephants.

Angela and her husband Robert Carr-Hartley now practically run the Trust and have taken it to new heights, says Dame Daphne. "Future plans involve saving as much wild land and all that it harbours."

Dame Daphne's personal favourites among animals? Antelopes, she says.

She has just completed her autobiography (due next year) titled An African Love Story, which she also hopes will reach people in the Middle East. Angela, who initially wanted to be an interior or fashion designer, now only aspires to "keep doing what we are doing and hope to make a difference in some way to those that are not in a position to help themselves - the wildlife of Kenya."

Dame Daphne's guiding principle is something that "my grandmother always used to tell us when we were kids: ‘If a job is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well'.

"I have tried to live by this principle by always being very thorough. I am only at peace when what I have begun is finished to my satisfaction," she says. 

  • Who: Dame Daphne Sheldrick
  • What: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
  • Where: Kenya
  • How: The Trust is committed to the conservation and rehabilitation of orphaned elephants, rhinos and other wild creatures. Its many activities help conserve wildlife.

For more info visit www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org