When the orphan arrived, Daphne Sheldrick felt her heart sink: “She was the smallest elephant I had ever seen — still covered in the soft fuzz of elephant infancy, her tiny trunk tinged with pink, toenails of pale yellow — soft and brand new.” Gauging the color and softness of the baby’s ears, it was clear she was under 3 weeks old.
Sheldrick was experienced at saving all kinds of animal babies, elephants in particular. They came in droves from the 1970s onward, as ivory poachers shot, hacked, and maimed their way across Kenya.
But Sheldrick’s successes in the early ’70s had always been with more mature calves who had already been weaned. Delicate newborns like this one invariably died in her arms. Not only were these elephants so traumatized that they lacked the will to live, but worse, Sheldrick could not find a formula to sustain them. Cow’s milk only made them sick.
But she kept trying. After all, Sheldrick writes in her memoir “Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story,” “a baby elephant captures your heart entirely.” As usual, weeks of feeding every possible concoction to the baby they were now calling “Shmetty” were not helping. Her sunken eye sockets and jutting cheekbones showed she was dying of starvation despite constant feedings. In desperation, Sheldrick tried a new formula containing coconut milk. It would turn out to be a huge breakthrough: Since then she has nurtured and returned to the wild hundreds of orphaned elephants.
In “Love, Life, and Elephants’’ Sheldrick traces her half century living with and rescuing elephants and other animals in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park and in Nairobi. But, as the subtitle suggests, the book is also a love story detailing Sheldrick’s undying passion for Africa and for her husband, the renowned naturalist David Sheldrick.
Daphne Sheldrick was born in colonial Kenya to a farming family. As a young wife, she fell madly in love with her husband’s dashing boss, park warden David Sheldrick, and, flouting contemporary convention, got divorced and then married him.
The two lived in Tsavo National Park, where, over the decades, legions of needy animals came to her. Punda the zebra, Gregory Peck the buffalo weaver chick, Old Spice the civet, Lollipa the Cape buffalo, and Higglety the mongoose have strong cameos. Elephants Samson, Sobo, and Eleanor (the amazing ex-orphan who fostered every baby brought to her) are, however, the leading characters.
The scenes when orphan Sobo, trumpeting with joy, rediscovers her wild elephant family by accident; when Gregory Peck surprises himself with his first flight; or when Higglety, the hairs of his tail erect in anger, stomps back home, right through the living room, after he has been released back into the wild, are the real marrow of this book.
Though she is not a gifted stylist, the stories Sheldrick has to tell are astonishing. But Africa is known for supplying its joys and agonies on an epic scale. Sheldrick has a lot of ground to cover, recounting not only her love story, but then the decades-long effort to save animals amid the ever-changing politics of conservation and of Kenya itself. The horrors she witnesses are agonizing to read. Imagine a group of elephants so frightened by their human attackers that a female aborts her late-term baby during the melee, whereupon mother and infant are hacked to death. But there is unstinting sorrow in any tale of life with wild animals.
Fortunately, as the book ends, Sheldrick, in her late 70s and a widow, is still at work. The David Sheldrick Trust employs more than 50 dedicated keepers who can airlift traumatized orphans back to the organization’s base in Nairobi where humans and other rescued elephants work their well-honed magic. Warning to readers, though: You may be tempted after turning the last page to sell all your possessions and join the cause.Vicki Constantine Croke can be reached at vicki@vickicroke