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Friday, April 26, 2013



I must confess that I don’t usually read books like that but three felicitous reasons combined for this occasion. One, we were in India in 2012 and happened to come close to a wild elephant who had wondered into our resort in a nature reserve – the elephant ditch had not been an obstacle for him/her in order to get to the jackfruit that was on offer on the trees. Two, I recently happened to come across Heathcote Williams’ The Sacred Elephant, a great, long ode to wild elephants. Third, Sheldrick’s book was presented to me by a member of my wife’s family – who once were Kenyans – and indeed one of my wife’s uncles is mentioned by name in the book.

My wife was born in Nairobi in 1955, the same year as Daphne Sheldrick’s first daughter, Jill. My wife’s father and step-mother, now living in New Zealand, know many of the characters in the book. As such, while I have never been to Kenya, I have a bit of background knowledge based on the many tales I’ve heard, notwithstanding popular treatises like Out of Africa, The Flame Trees of Thika and Happy Valley. Being more interested in politics than wildlife, I’ve always wondered why some Europeans stayed in Kenya after independence while many others – like my wife’s family – left. So how come Daphne Sheldrick and members of her family stayed on? Surely I would find the answer in the book even if it was all about the wildlife. Don’t get me wrong, I am totally on the side of animal rights activists, and while I know next to nothing about elephants (apart from what Heathcote Williams tells us in his Sacred Elephant, which quite a mine of knowledge) I have no doubt that elephants are some of the greatest creatures on earth, and I admire anybody who deeply cares for them and their freedom (I hate people who keep elephants as circus and zoo animals).

Sheldrick’s opening gambit is rather flawed in this respect: she gets nearly killed by a wild elephant whom she mistakes as one of the former orphans she had reared and reintroduced to Tsavo National Park. This happened many years after she had left Tsavo, and it was many years after her second husband, David Sheldrick had died. While the stated aim by the Sheldricks had always been to reintegrate their elephant orphans (and other species like rhinos) into the park’s wilderness, there had developed such an anthropomorphic bond between Daphne and some of the orphans (like the one she named Eleanor) that she thought it only natural that she could meet them in the wild and they would come up to her and give her a cuddle. That she couldn’t tell for sure who is who in a wild herd is perhaps a reminder that such anthropomorphism should cease when such animals are returned to the wild. If a formerly orphaned animal returned to the park headquarters in Tsavo to say hello to Daphne and her caring assistants, one would fully accept it as a friendly gesture on behalf of the animal. There are many stories of animals that return to their former caregivers who do not recognize them by way of any distinctive features but by the mere fact that they behave in a way that is not normal for a wild animal, i.e. they make a friendly contact with the humans whom they remember as having saved their lives. Often such visits are fleeting and in time may cease altogether. The humans should accept this as a job well done. This may be easier said than done, as some people really do love their animals in the way one loves a best human friend who would do anything to help out in need. To let go of this bond is a great sacrifice to make, as Daphne Sheldrick often relates when she lets her charges go. She should not have sought out Eleanor in the wild herd of elephants when she should have known – as a person who had studied elephants all her life – that this was a risky undertaking as another elephant might well come up instead of Eleanor and be not recognized as such and thereby set up a situation that can dangerous for both animal and human very quickly. That this elephant merely threw her onto some rocks but did not kill her, she puts down to some sort of telegraphic communication between Eleanor and the said elephant, informing the latter to spare Daphne’s life. I doubt this to be the case as it sounds like another anthropomorphic assumption of which Daphne Sheldrick is so convinced about. I have no doubt that elephants amongst each other have quite sophisticated communication channels that may seem telepathic to humans but on the other hand there is simply no evidence at all that any animal, be it elephant or any other animal, has anything like the human capacity of language and communication. Daphne was just lucky that the elephant didn’t kill her, and the elephant was very lucky that Daphne wasn’t accompanied by any park wardens who would have shot the elephant. In any case, Daphne opens her book with this very unfortunate incident, setting the scene which, unwittingly perhaps, is a story of her life that leaves many of the more difficult questions unanswered.

Her life story begins with her ancestors’ great journey from South-Africa to Kenya in the early 1900s, responding to a call from the then Kenyan Governor, one Sir Charles Eliot, to settle on land given to them for free by the Governor. Daphne never questions this transaction – a British colonial administrator giving away African land to his countrymen -  instead describing her ancestors as hardy pioneers who endured countless obstacles to establish themselves as cattle farmers on Kikuyu land. The leader of her group of settlers was Great-Uncle Will who was a great hunter who ‘satiated his lust for land and animals’ – as Daphne puts it without much of hint of sarcasm or even irony. That European settlers decimated the wildlife as much as the dreaded African poachers later on, never really occurs to Daphne. She does however comment on her first husband, Bill Woodley (incidentally well known in his adolescence by my wife’s father) who as a game warden to protect the wildlife against poachers was a keen elephant hunter himself. Such a contradiction was apparently quite common amongst the European fraternity in Kenya, as it is indeed today with many of the so-called patrons of various wildlife charities who don’t mind a bit of blood sport themselves – note the notorious case of the current Spanish King Juan Carlos shooting elephants while being a patron of the WWF. Indeed Daphne’s first husband seemed to lack in other areas too, such as in his matrimonial duties – something Daphne doesn’t seem to mind making public knowledge – hence the inevitable second marriage to David Sheldrick whom she describes as her ‘soul mate’. David who more or less single-handedly created the Tsavo National Park out of nothing was of course that rare human being that considered all wildlife as sacrosanct, going all out to protect elephants from the African poachers who by then were the greatest threat to elephants and rhinos. Both David and Daphne shared the touching belief that elephants in particular – and all animals in general – exhibit behaviors that are very close to human experience, thus often being in opposition to the many scientists of the day who studied wildlife in Tsavo and elsewhere. When one of them demanded the cull of 300 elephants in Tsavo to study them, David reluctantly agreed but put his foot down and refused a further kill of some 900 or so as demanded by the crazy British scientist. Even to agree to have 300 elephants slaughtered sounds like a major tragedy if not crime committed against elephants and no different to the endless poaching for ivory that goes on to this day. One of the great things that David achieved was to prevent elephant culls in Tsavo in the name of balancing the natural ecology – as recommended by renowned British zoologist Julian Huxley – because of his realization that nature balances itself very well without such human intervention. That the great herds of wild elephants in Tsavo recreated the park in their image is a testament to his insight.

One of the contradictions in Daphne’s life is related to this whole issue of British elites determining the fate of nations as much as of animals. Heathcote Williams who in his Royal Babylon decries the crimes of British royalty committed against animals, is in stark contrast to Daphne Sheldrick and her ilk who venerate British royalty and everything that goes with it. Her acceptance of a gong (Dame Commander) by the Queen is obviously a highlight of her life. She wholeheartedly agrees that the high and mighty alone can change the course of history for man and beast while at the coalface she and her co-workers do the actual work. I do admire her for the latter part but I cannot understand her submission to an authority that ultimately is to blame for all the troubles she faces on the ground.

Another contradiction, if not omission, is a considered account of the Mau Mau period, from about 1950 to 1960. While she offers some vivid descriptions of personal experiences, there is a lack of insight into the causes of the Mau Mau rebellion. She claims that she and her ancestors, as white settlers in general, were ‘humane and totally honourable pioneers who had braved the unknown and, with blood, sweat and toil, brought progress to darkest Africa, promising law and order and good governance under benign British rule’. She does not once admit that the Africans, and the Kikuyu in particular, had any rightful grievances. This is in stark contrast to other Kenyan voices such as the eminent L.S.B Leakey, who in his 1952 book Mau Mau and the Kikuyu presented a long list, including the ‘colour bar’ as a sort of apartheid Kenya-style. While Leakey does brand the Mau Mau as a ‘terrorist’ organization, he does point out that the white settlers and the British rule had turned the Kikuyu in particular into a tribe of squatters who saw no way forward. The British military response resulted in a pyrrhic victory that saw Jomo Kenyatta as the eventual winner – driving out many white settlers and British government officials and workers (such as my wife’s parents and grandparents). That the Sheldricks stayed on was more of a financial necessity rather than a decision of principle. As they were not employed by the British government – and had no land assets to sell – they hoped for the best and continued employment under Kenyan rule. While David Sheldrick lost his job as Tsavo warden he was re-employed in another capacity which ultimately led to his early death. It is of course to Daphne’s credit that she was not deterred and stayed on in Kenya – for the love of the elephants and other wildlife.

When Daphne was first married to Bill Woodley – and was pregnant with her fist child – they nearly got killed in a Mau Mau ambush, and one can understand her reluctance to engage with the macro-politics of the time that could shed light on the individual experiences that were of course tragic in many cases for the white population. Even after the Mau Mau rebellion, and when Kenyatta had taken over, there were many challenging times for the remaining whites. Indeed Daphne’s first child, Jill, as a grown-up was robbed in Nairobi together with her French partner, and they left for France, establishing their base there. To remain apolitical in all these situations must come at a price. The Sheldricks were tolerated as white Kenyans only because they were useful in attracting funding from white countries (mainly Britain and the US). Even the famous Leakeys had mixed fortunes in post-colonial Kenya. As I write this the new Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta’s son, is inaugurated with Damocles’ sword hanging over him. The ‘darkest’ Africa has become darker still. Once the British, German, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese colonizers had left, all hell broke loose in the regions where tribal borders re-emerged from what were arbitrary lines drawn in the sand by the colonizers. There can be little doubt that Africa as a whole came off worst from colonial rule and is still reeling from it. Daphne Sheldrick is wrong in saying that the colonists ‘brought progress to darkest Africa’, i.e. Kenya, especially as L.S.B. Leakey points out that the pre-European Kikuyu were a society that thrived and had a sophisticated land tenure that ensured sustainable agriculture. As with many indigenous peoples around the world, the Kikuyu did not alienate land by sale but willing to have it tenanted by mutual agreement. This was their understanding when ceding land to the white settlers, and when they were confronted with the European claims that they had bought the land in perpetuum, the Kikuyu rightfully felt cheated. In addition to this item of ‘progress’ brought by the colonizers there are all the usual diseases and Christian religions that wrought havoc amongst the Kikuyu and other African tribes. This is not to romanticize African tribal societies in the face of European colonizing nations: both are subject to the yin and yang of life but there can be little doubt that colonization is the one of the most denigrating processes that history has ever seen - and continues to see.

David Sheldrick, whom Daphne describes, as mentioned before, as her ‘soul mate’ is by all accounts an amazing person who moves heaven and hell to give African wildlife a leg up. Daphne credits him with an anthropomorphic understanding of flora and fauna, thereby being in conflict with the scientific community at the time – zoologists in particular. On the other hand he welcomed the scientific attention given to ‘his’ Tsavo National Park, hosting many a scientist. Daphne credits David for her own extensive wildlife education and paired with her maternal instincts towards all manner of animal orphans, she developed a much more personal – hence anthropomorphic - relationship with her charges, enabling her and her co-workers to save many an orphan from certain death.

David’s untimely death after having left Tsavo to undertake a new role for the newly independent Kenyan government is traced back to David’s reluctance to face up to his heart problems first diagnosed when they were on a South African visit many years before. It seems to me though that his removal from his beloved Tsavo must have caused much proverbial and literal heart-ache, so much so that he went downhill quite rapidly. Whatever the causes of his death, there is now a new chapter in Daphne’s life.

The Kenya government eventually agreed for her and her two daughters to set up house inside the Nairobi National Park where she continues to raise orphans, especially elephants and rhino. Both her daughters became avid wildlife activists as well and helped to establish the now famous David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, attracting world-wide funding, thus being able to expand operations and lobby governments and wildlife organizations to intervene in the cruel trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn, reign in destructive poaching and uncover wide-spread corruption that allows these practices to flourish. She is unflinching in her dedication to the cause, and while she is given to collect local and international awards, allowing her to travel far and wide, one must admire her for her down-to-earth attitude, living a simple life inside the Nairobi National Park.

As always she does remain somewhat contradictory in her approach to animal welfare: a supposedly hilarious episode demonstrates this well: the Pope visits Kenya and wants to bless a rhino – how absurd! – and Daphne is asked to help out by ‘taming’ a suitable rhino, and she agrees. In my mind she should have denounced such a bizarre request but I suppose she saw the advertising potential in that such a scene would be televised work-wide and as such attract further funding. Of course she is also a devout Christian and fails to see the Pope as one of the problems of the world.

The late 1980s also saw Daphne come into contact with Richard Leakey who had been installed as Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, only to end in near tragedy when his plane crashed and he lost his feet – some say that his plane was sabotaged. Daphne doesn’t say so but continues to complain about the general corruption and mismanagement that plagues the Kenyan government (now under Arap Moi) and its wildlife service, what with the elephant population in Tsavo having decimated to some 16,000 in 1990 (out of well over 100,000 two decades before). Indeed, her David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust assumes the de facto running of Kenya’s wildlife service by attracting ever larger funding and commitments from various sources, thus being able to provide services that the government agencies are increasingly unable to.

In 1994 the incident occurred with which Daphne opens her book – as described earlier - namely being attacked by a wild elephant she mistook for Eleanor, the hand-raised orphan elephant who had returned to the wild. Daphne spent six months recuperating, receiving bone and skin grafts in South Africa. She was then invited to Japan to undergo further treatment. Her elder daughter Jill, who after her first marriage had shacked up with a Frenchman, and had a child with him, and was living on a farm they had acquired, continued to work in the elephant nursery in Nairobi. As also mentioned before, she was held up at gun point and forced to hand over cash from the kitty that paid the workers. Her French partner couldn’t cope with such a situation and to Daphne’s great sadness they moved to France permanently (Jill returning every now and then). Angela, her second daughter (by David Sheldrick) had in the meantime also married a local white Kenyan, and they went off to manage a resort in northern Kenya. However before long they returned and built a house next to Daphne’s (still inside the Nairobi National Park). Angela took over many of Daphne’s day to day running of the Trust as well as establishing a working satellite field base at Tsavo National Park, thereby more or less returning to Tsavo that her father had established.

Daphne finishes her penultimate chapter by musing over why Eleanor – the elephant – never returned to meet her in Tsavo, concocting a rather strange explanation: Eleanor was afraid that Daphne would ‘hijack’ her offspring, assuming that Daphne had ‘hijacked’ all the other orphans before and after her. If we take the anthropomorphic angle, I’m sure that Eleanor would have known very well what an ‘orphan’ was and that Daphne obviously didn’t ‘hijack’ them. Surely there are other more appealing possibilities: maybe Eleanor didn’t want to ever again face Daphne because she felt guilty about her ‘friend’ having nearly killed Daphne; or else  Eleanor wanted to make the point that David Sheldrick had always made, namely that animal orphans saved by humans must be returned to their natural environment lest they become human pets.

Indeed in the last chapter dedicated to David, he is quoted as saying that animals are ‘other Nations’ – a notion so well captured by Heathcote Williams in his epic poem called Whale Nation and he could have easily entitled his other poem Elephant Nation instead of his Sacred Elephant. David Sheldrick also echoes the latter by saying that we need a ‘more mystical concept of animals’. Personally I prefer, as it were, Animal Society, inasmuch animals are living beings like we are, largely living in communal societies, minding their own business in accord with nature – indeed embodying nature, and not like some in-human humans are apt to, to conquer nature, and to colonize and exploit those other humans who only expected benevolence when meeting them. Daphne Sheldrick no doubt fits the description of a good human who is dedicated to Animal Society as a friend and saviour – it’s just that sometimes she doesn’t realize that her own British/European/American society harbours many a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing, and she falls for the cuddly sheep, like Winfrey Oprah, The Warner Brothers, the Queen and all the other celebrities that have elevated her, in her senior years, into a society that couldn’t care less about Animal Society other than using cute animals in advertising campaigns. She also sometimes seems to forget about Kikuyu and other tribal societies that struggle under the weight of globalization and Western Market domination. She does well to remember the words of the elder L.S.B. Leakey who noted that the Kikuyu and Masai tribal societies of old regarded the elephants as a Nation that held prior tenure over the lands they roamed.

There is also an antidote to the Sheldricks’ anthropomorphism which may apply to humans and animals alike, one that Werner Herzog in his film Grizzly Man called ‘the overwhelming indifference of nature’ – after all Daphne Sheldrick nearly paid the price for it. That she bore no ill will is both a sign of her naïvety and of her touching belief in the essential goodness of nature.