The Elephant Orphanage in Kenya

28. March 2019

Even though I never had the good fortune to meet the late Daphne Sheldrik, sooner or later anybody with an interest in, or writing about elephants will have heard about the Sheldrik Wildlife Trust and the nursery for orphaned elephants founded by Daphne Sheldrik.

Orphaned baby elephants separated from their mothers and families rarely survive until adulthood. Daphne Sheldrik is certainly the first person to have successfully raised baby elephants and re-introduced them to the wild. The Elephant nursery in Kenya, managed today by her daughter Angela, continues to save elephant orphans, making an invaluable contribution to the conservation of wild African elephants. Daphne’s wonderful book: LOVE, Life, AND ELEPHANTS an African Love Storydescribes the long road to perfecting husbandry and milk formula for saving countless baby elephants and rhinos. ( From Love, Life, and Elephants: Copyright 2012 by Dame Daphne Sheldrik, Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York ISBN: 978-0-374-10457-3)

Daphne Sheldrik with one of her orphans. Photo: DSWT

This book, the heart-warming legacy of  Daphne’s knowledge and love for African wildlife, owes its existence to an almost deadly, yet mystical adventure with  two elephants.  One former orphan named Eleanor and a wild elephant. There existed a very special bond  of friendship of almost 40 years between Elenor and Daphne. One day, out in the Tsavo Parc, Daphne and a friend noticed a group of wild elephants in the distance.  One of them looking very much like Eleanor approached the two humans as Eleanor always did, to say hi to Daphne for old times’ sake. Being next to the beautiful elephant,  Daphne touched her cheeks, caressing her below the chin in greeting.

Suddenly, the elephant abruptly moved her head  and using her trunk to lift Daphne,  throwing her some twenty paces away on a clump of boulders. Daphne’s body was broken in several places and when the elephant approached, she was sure that this would be the end. But once the elephant towered over her, after a moment of complete silence, the elephant tried to insert her tusk between Daphne’s body and the boulders, attempting to lift her as she would one of her own injured children. Daphne knew by now that this elephant was not Eleanor, but also surmised that she was not going to kill her. Of course, she also realized that in her conditions she should not be moved, so she discouraged the elephant from picking her up. The elephant then moved one giant foot gently over Daphne’s body, hardly touching her and then quietly walked away. After many agonizing hours on the boulders, the Flying Doctors rescued Daphne, and she promised herself to write a book as her legacy about African wildlife.

Elephant keepers at work at the Sheldrik nursery. Photo: DSWT

It took Daphne countless operations, learning to walk again, bone grafts and long convalescence to recover. But recover she did. Amazingly, it turned out that her elephant friend Eleanor knew the attacker (later named Catherine). In the many complex ways elephants communicate, Eleanor, who was not far away,  had let Catherine know that Daphne was a friend. Daphne continued her important work of habitat conservation for wild elephants and rehabilitating elephant orphans for release into the wild.

Today the nursery and the Sheldrik Wildlife Trust are known the world over, with over fifty proficient and dedicated elephant-keepers raising newborn elephants. Television and films, such as The Elephant Diaries in 2005  produced by BBC, attracted millions of viewers in the UK and the US.

The following video of rescuing a baby elephant orphan is only  the first step of the long road, often as long as 10 years, to integrate the elephant back into a wild herd.