October 31, 2012

Love, Life, and Elephants

We need another wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. in a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we will never hear. they are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of earth. Henry Beston, a WWI vet  who sought solace in nature and wrote about his experiences

And while i have much to learn, this much i know: animals are indeed more ancient, more complex and in many ways more sophisticated than us. they are more perfect because they remain within Nature's fearful symmetry just as Nature intended. they should be respected and revered, but perhaps none more so than the elephant, the world's most emotionally human land mammal. Daphne Sheldrick

And so ends Love, Life, and Elephants, Daphne Sheldrick's memoir about growing up in Kenya and establishing Kenya's national parks in an effort to conserve and protect the nation's land and wildlife. i'm pretty sure i heard about this book from Yao Ming, the gigantic Chinese NBA player. he recently embarked on a tour of Africa's national parks and reserves to bring awareness and education to the Asian population. elephant and rhino poaching have once again reached epic proportions, almost entirely due to demand from Asian countries, who buy ivory trinkets as talismans and signs of wealth. Rhino horns are thought to contain valuable medicinal properties, when in reality they are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up our fingernails. i find it so commendable that Ming elected to take on this cause. here he is visiting Sheldrick's elephant orphanage (babies wear blankets because they would normally be shaded from the sun by their mothers):

anyway, on to the book. Daphne Sheldrick is British, although her family has lived in Kenya for generations as farmers. she was born there while Kenya was still a British colony and lived through its transition to an independent country. she and her second husband David were the founding co-wardens of the Tsavo National Park for 20 years, and during that time Daphne continued her childhood penchant for attracting and raising orphaned animals. they soon had a motley crew of orphans- rhinos, zebras, and buffaloes, all under the watchful leadership of Eleanor, the elephant matriarch who considered this brood her family. after David died suddenly in 1976, the Nairobi Park offered her a small parcel of land to build a home, and she has lived there ever since. she's become an expert on all kinds of animal husbandry and was the first person in the world to successfully rear a milk-dependent baby elephant to adulthood. an elephant orphanage naturally sprang up around her home, as people heard of her and brought her baby elephants who had been orphaned by poaching. today, the orphanage and the trust begun in her husband's memory are still going strong, with dozens of baby elephants being reared and eventually reintroduced into the wild, and the trust also concentrating on anti-poaching efforts, mobile veterinary units, and community outreach.

the older orphans always look out for the newest and youngest
it will come as no surprise that i loved this book. i was a little wary at first, as Sheldrick is now her 70's and her writing style does have a slightly flowery, grandmotherly tone. but her story is so incredible, the content totally supersedes any stylistic prejudices of mine. and as most people know, i have a fierce love of animals- especially elephants- so i was hooked from the beginning. i sometimes joke that i prefer animals over people, but i really do believe that, as Sheldrick wrote,  "they are more perfect because they remain within Nature's fearful symmetry just as Nature intended." She put into words my feelings about animals- their superiority over us, their innocence that we have destroyed, and the notion that they are far more "human" in thought & emotion than science gives them credit for. i felt like i was reading the story of a kindred spirit. especially the way she describes her efforts to rear the orphaned animals who find their way to her. everything from elephants, rhinos, antelopes, mongooses, birds, and more. she named each one (the mongoose was named Higglety), lavished love and attention on them, and always maintained a respectful balance of parenting the animals while slowly, carefully reintroducing them to their own kind, with the expectation that they will eventually return to the wild on their own time. those that are unable to return- the completely blind rhino named Maxwell, for example- have a permanent home at the orphanage.

meanwhile, poaching has once again risen to devastating levels. poachers have become more creative with their efforts to kill the elephants. poisoned arrows and watermelons, wire snares, semi-automatic weapons, waiting around a dead elephant for the others to show up and mourn, then picking off the rest of the family (as described by a poacher on NPR last week)... all of these things happen on a regular basis. National Geographic has a great section on their site devoted to
the issue (which was last month's cover story) if you are interested in learning more. one fact from the cover- 25,000 elephants were killed last year. twenty five thousand.

back at the orphanage, the keepers of the orphans basically become their mothers. to work at the orphanage, they make up to a 10 year commitment, as elephants mature and age at a similar rate of humans and need many years of stable rearing. the keepers sleep in the stalls with their babies, and rotate on a regular basis so the babies don't develop an unhealthy dependence on any one keeper. there the orphans begin the emotional work of recovering from seeing their mother/family slaughtered before their eyes (many exhibit textbook PTSD symptoms), and re-forming a new family with the other orphaned baby, adolescent, and adult elephants. it's a long, uncertain road for them, but for the last sixty years, Daphne & her family, the orphanage, and the trust have dedicated themselves to protecting and paving a way for all the animals they encounter.

if you'd like to follow their stories, you can "like" them on Facebook to keep abreast of what's currently happening. the trust's website is also amazing, with tons of photos, journals of the keepers, updates on anti-poaching efforts, wild animals saved through the mobile vet unit, extensive articles, etc. it looks a little "Web 1.0" but there's lots of valuable content. they've begun a campaign to end the illegal ivory trade- you can sign their online petition here. and most importantly, for only $50.00 you can sponsor an orphan and help give one of these little guys a second chance.

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