Rob Hardy on books


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Back to the Wild



Rob Hardy


There must be some reason that we love elephants so. The big, strange beasts are among the most popular exhibits at circuses and zoos, for instance. Their participation in such venues may not have done the elephants much good, and neither has the relentless poaching for their ivory. One person who has harnessed a love of elephants in order to benefit the animals themselves is Dame Daphne Sheldrick, a conservationist who has special expertise in raising orphaned elephants and reintegrating them into the wild. The poachers have made lots of orphans, and Sheldrick has had an enormous amount of work to do within Kenya's Tsavo East National Park to try to bring some sort of balance. Elephants naturally loom large within her biography Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), but so do the humans she has worked with, and sometimes against, as well as rhinos, zebras, dikdiks, civet cats, ostriches, mongooses, and more. It is a delightful book, with plenty of funny and sad stories, and a charming reverence for fellow creatures. Sheldrick has had a unique and useful life, and her looking back on it for us is generous and instructive. 




Sheldrick was born in Nairobi in 1934, and was raised on her father's farm. Her family had been long term white settlers to the area, and she describes how different their times had been compared to her own. There had been wildlife in profusion in her grandfather's day, and she marvels about "how lightly my ancestors shot at animals" contrasting with her own feelings for them. She was brought up with animals, and was fascinated by them. "Animals were everywhere, their sounds, their scent, their behaviour part of the everyday fabric of life on the farm." There were wild animals outside the farm, of course, but Sheldrick writes with affection of the domestic ones kept for fun or companionship, cats, dogs, Bob the impala, Daisy the waterbuck, and so on. Her curiosity wasn't confined to the bigger, furrier creatures. It extended, for instance, to ticks, for which every evening she and her siblings had to be ceremoniously checked and de-ticked. "Ticks were everywhere and they got into every part of our anatomy, but although they irritated us like mad, I couldn't help but be fascinated by their splendid variety - striped legs, spotted legs, red legs, yellow legs, spotted legs with green stripes, so it went on." 




Her family put her in charge of an orphaned baby bushbuck when she was four, and her life changed. She had to feed him, of course, but she also had to leave him alone; her mother explained that Bushy would have been hidden by his mother and would have spent much of his early childhood alone and under brush. He grew up and became more responsive, and as he grew up, the great issue loomed: returning the animal to the wild. It was to be a theme throughout all Sheldrick's work. Bushy grew up healthy enough to disappear one day, and she was inconsolable. In a lifetime of caring for orphans, she has seen many of them leave for the wild, and all of the sadness of parting still remains, and never becomes easier. She could not give herself any comfort when she was a little girl, but she learned before long that a saved wild animal is not a pet, but must become what it is destined to be, "another member of the wild community, faced with the spectre of Nature's most powerful tool, natural selection."  




There are times when natural selection intrudes brutally. She remembers much later in life having two mongooses, Higglety and Pickle; mongooses as she describes them sound like smart, curious, amusing, and affectionate animals. When they didn't return one evening, she went out to find them only to discover that Pickle was a mere corpse, being carried aloft in the talons of an eagle. His friend Higglety returned home, "terribly subdued, staying close to home for a few days, keeping one eye directed skyward." Eventually, he spent a night out, and then successive nights, and then he disappeared entirely, and she experienced again the old pain of parting. Higglety, at least, "had returned to where he rightfully belonged, and as David reminded me, this was cause for celebration, not self-pity. It was the quality of life that counted, he said, not the duration, and our orphans, irrespective of their end, had enjoyed a second chance of life that would otherwise have been denied them." 




The philosophical fellow is Sheldrick's second husband, David Sheldrick, Tsavo's principle warden. He had superb knowledge about African wildlife, and he had the looks of a movie star, and she lost her heart to him. She is as effusive about the relationship with David as she is about any with her animals; you may read here about her initial night with him, "a night of wonder, igniting an all-consuming love" under a safari tent. The two of them both got divorced from their then-spouses, married, had a daughter of their own, and worked incessantly for Tsavo's wild beauties. Her main enthusiasm was elephants, and she and David were to work jointly saving orphans and thwarting poachers. They also had to battle against corrupt politicians and well-meaning scientists who believed that elephant overpopulation in the park was hurting its overall ecology and that profitable culling of the herds was better than natural solutions.  




David was to have a premature death from heart attack in 1974; Sheldrick was bereft and shattered, but felt that she had learned from her beloved elephants, who do have their own process of mourning. She was to soldier on by herself, becoming especially adept at bringing up elephant orphans. It is the sort of work that no one had done before, and it was trial and error for many years, with the errors sadly being the little elephants that didn't make it. There was no other way to learn the right way to do it. One of the secrets is coconut milk, which has the right fats for a nursing elephant calf and none of the indigestibility of cow's milk. Raising an elephant child is hard, with every-three-hour feedings using a huge container with an artificial teat, and the calf is dependent on milk for three years. It wasn't just elephants, but other creatures such as rhinoceroses. It is interesting that although the aim was the same for both rhinos and elephants, to get them back into the wild, the strategies had to be completely different. "Whereas elephants were very difficult to rear but easy to rehabilitate, the rhinos were the opposite - easy to rear but extremely difficult to reintegrate back into the wild system." Antelope orphans, by contrast, were a cinch. 




There are many funny stories here, like the time a worker from the park came upon poachers doing their evil work. He called upon them to stop, whereupon they would have fled, but they became incoherent. Behind him, walking along in companionship, were an elephant, a couple of rhinos, buffaloes, and ostriches tended by the park. The poachers begged on their knees for mercy; they were sure that they were being captured by a witch. And who knew that ostriches enjoyed military formations? They would hear the sergeant-major calling the rangers to a drill inspection, and would hurry along to join the ranks. There is an absurd picture here of men with arms a-shoulder, watched carefully by a platoon of ostriches. There are heartbreaking stories, too, and throughout there is a moving resolve to help out, to get things done for animals betrayed by our silly covetousness for ivory, or the even sillier desire for "medicines" made from rhinoceros horn. It's going to be a tough fight. Modern poachers use machine guns, there is increased demand from China, and global warming is threatening the environment of the park. Anyone reading this heartfelt volume will hope that the work of Dame Daphne and of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust will continue. 




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