Daphne Sheldrick, a Kenyan wildlife conservationist who helped nurse, bathe and occasionally apply sunscreen to more than 230 orphaned elephants, and whose decades of work on their behalf made her one of the world’s foremost champions of a creature she described as a “human animal,” died April 12 in Nairobi. She was 83.
The cause was breast cancer, her daughter Angela Sheldrick said in a statement from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Sheldrick created the organization in 1977 and named it for her husband, who had died earlier that year and was the founding warden of Kenya’s largest national park.
Before his death, the couple had worked together to preserve elephants at Tsavo East, a sprawling, untamed preserve of more than 5,000 square miles. While David Sheldrick organized one of the country’s first anti-poaching units, led early studies of elephant diets and migration, and established a network of all-weather roadways through the park, Sheldrick focused on rescuing young elephants whose mothers had been speared by ivory hunters.
Baby elephants depend on milk until they are about 3, and for 28 years, Sheldrick struggled to develop a formula that approximated their mothers’ in taste and nutrition. The elephant calves bridled at cow’s milk, but Sheldrick — after successfully devising a formula for baby rhinos — eventually landed on an ambrosia-like mixture that incorporated coconut oil.
Often described as the first person to hand-rear a newborn elephant, Sheldrick appeared on television programs such as “60 Minutes” and in the 2011 Imax documentary “Born to Be Wild.” She promoted the conservation of rhinos, antelope, buffalo, giraffes and most other animals of the East African savanna. Her organization, overseen for the past 17 years by her daughter Angela, operates a rhino orphan project, anti-poaching teams and mobile veterinary operations, funded in part by a foster program that lets donors support individual animals.
Sheldrick was often known as Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick — she received an honorary doctorate in veterinary medicine and surgery from the University of Glasgow, and in 2006 was appointed dame commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II — and had maintained a close kinship to wildlife since she was a child.
The daughter of a British farmer, she fed a baby antelope named Bushy from a milk bottle every four hours, and later maintained similarly deep attachments to elephants such as Gulliver, whom she once described as having “the hairy wizened look of a little old gnome.” She was known to roll through the mud or traipse barefoot through the dirt with elephants in her charge, and sometimes comforted newborns that screamed in their sleep, apparently suffering nightmares.
“Elephants are very human animals,” she once told National Geographic. “Their emotions are exactly the same as ours. They’ve lost their families, have seen their mothers slaughtered, and they come here filled with aggression — devastated, broken and grieving.”
One of her organization’s elephants was found by the body of its dead mother, shot weeks earlier by a poacher; the calf had apparently survived by drinking its mother’s urine. Others were found stuck in the mud near watering holes or wounded by predators, and were transported by truck or plane to Sheldrick’s orphanage in Nairobi National Park.
Once there, the animals received round-the-clock attention. Newborns slept with a keeper and were given blankets, rain jackets and sunscreen on their ears during their first few months of life.
Sheldrick’s attachment to the animals occasionally pained both parties. In her organization’s early years, she recalled, she bonded especially close with an elephant that died when Sheldrick left for a wedding. During her two-week absence, the elephant had grown depressed and stopped eating. (The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust now pairs animals with multiple human caretakers to reduce the risk of overdependence.)
Years later, in 1994, Sheldrick was visited by an adult elephant that looked like Eleanor, a calf that she had raised 40 years earlier and that sometimes left its herd to say hello.
On this occasion, the elephant allowed Sheldrick to caress her chin — until it stepped backward and knocked Sheldrick forward with its trunk, sending her flying “like a piece of weightless flotsam, high through the air with such force that I smashed down on a giant clump of boulders some 20 paces away. I knew at once,” Sheldrick wrote in her 2012 memoir, “Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story,” “that the impact had shattered my right leg.”
The elephant was not Eleanor, Sheldrick realized, and she began to pray, hoping the elephant would not charge her. Instead, it placed its tusks “between my body and the rocks. Rather than a desire to kill, I realized that the elephant was actually trying to help me by lifting me to my feet, encouraging me to stand. I thought: this is how they respond to their young.”
Daphne Marjorie Jenkins was born near Gilgil, in what was then British colonial Kenya, on June 4, 1934. She graduated from the Kenya High School, a girls’ school in Nairobi, but spurned a university education to remain in the country and marry William Woodley, an assistant warden at Nairobi National Park and later at Tsavo East. Sheldrick divorced her husband and married his boss, Sheldrick, in 1960.
Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Jill Woodley; a daughter from her second marriage, Angela Sheldrick; and four grandchildren.
Sheldrick remained a vocal opponent of poaching in recent years, warning that without increased funding for protection and preservation, elephants could be extinct in less than 15 years. A 2017 report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species found while elephant poaching has gradually declined, Eastern Africa has lost about half of its elephant population in the past decade.
Her admiration for the animals seemed to grow even as their numbers fell. In the acknowledgments section of her memoir, she thanked “the elephants themselves, who by example have demonstrated how to cope with adversity. …They, who have suffered so much at the hands of humans, never lose the ability to forgive, even though, being elephants, they will never be able to forget.”