This is a review of the book Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick. First of all, let me give you the backstory on how I found this fascinating read. Next year, I’ll be traveling to Kenya for a safari and I wanted to delve into the history and culture of the area before the trip. I booked the safari with The Village Experience and wrote an email to Kelly Campbell, one of the co-founders, asking if she had any recommendations relevant to the Kenya trip. Daphne Sheldrick’s book was on the top of the list that Kelly provided. While on safari, one of the sites I’ll be visiting is the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage that is featured in the book. Special thanks to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for graciously providing me with the photos of Daphne and her elephants.
Daphne Sheldrick’s Early Years
In this heartfelt autobiography, Daphne tells the story of her life and career as a conservationist raising orphaned animals. The book starts with her family in the early 1900s when they relocate from South Africa to Kenya. When Daphne herself is born, her family is settled and running a farm. The vivid descriptions of her early childhood bring to life the wonders and hardships her family faced:
“During the rains all the anxious creases on my father’s brow disappeared. He would stand on the verandah, hands out-stretched, looking out over the Great Rift Valley, and watch as the first raindrops fell, soaking the earth, breathing in the scent of the air. Meanwhile my brother and sisters would be praying for hail, despite the fact that hail meant doom for our father’s crops. But for us it meant one thing: ice cream.
We had no refrigerator and so we could never keep anything that would melt. At the first hint of hail, then, we would dash outside to frantically scoop up the hailstones as my mother rushed into the pantry to prepare the mixture for ice cream. This was placed in a sealed container, surrounded by hailstones and salt and lowered into a bucket, which we then had to roll up and down the back verandah until the ice cream had frozen.”
After Daphne’s innocent early years, she grows up in the outset of the Second World War. We all know about the atrocities that took place and the massive loss of life across the globe. However, Daphne broaches a topic that is less talked about; the loss of animal life for war. The Government needed to feed the British and Kenyan troops as well as Italian and German prisoners-of-war. By the end of the war, thousands of zebra and wildebeest were killed for their meat and their hides which were turned into machine belting.
Years later, Daphne relays her experiences of living and working in Tsavo National Park. This is where (unbeknownst to her) she meets her future husband David Sheldrick. At this point, the park is a work-in-progress. David’s job is to take a large swath of wilderness that is being ravaged by poachers and transform it into an accessible National Park.
Throughout the book, Daphne has interwoven stories of her experiences with animals. Starting at four years old, she was already caring for an orphaned baby bushbuck (similar to an antelope) which she named Bushy. Daphne displays her adoration for the animals which is vividly evoked in her descriptions of them:
“Bushy was the first creature to provide me with an insight into the wonders of the wild animal kingdom. He was gorgeous to look at, with large soft ears and beautiful liquid eyes, his skin of a rich chestnut colour with white patches on his throat and vertical white stripes and spots on his body.”
After Daphne and David are happily married, life doesn’t slow down; animal orphans of various types are brought to the couple. And with that, Daphne’s shares her first-hand experiences of learning and understanding animal behaviors. She also shares the hard realization that comes with raising wild animals; that when they leave you and return to the wild, that is when you know you have succeeded. Since I was unfamiliar with many of the species described, I consequently found myself searching online to identify them. If I could change anything in the book it would be adding a “cast of characters” to more easily keep track of who the animals were.
The value of ivory was on the rise and poaching was a constant threat to the elephants and rhinos within the park. There are many descriptions of perceptive behaviors by the animals, even with regards to the poaching. Daphne describes one such instance where a matriarch elephant, named Eleanor (pictured above), and a keeper at the park discovered some poachers having just killed an elephant:
“Eleanor was carefully investigating the carcass of the dead elephant, running her trunk up and down the gleaming surface of the tusks. With one foot on the skull, she gripped them firmly in her trunk and with a sickening crunch tore each one from its socket. Holding each tusk aloft, she waved them about for a few moments before flinging them deep into the bush. It was as if, despite leading a sheltered life, she realized that herein lay the cause of the persecution of her kind”.
To combat this onslaught, David established an anti-poaching network throughout the park. Mobile patrols kept in touch with the entrance gates and outposts by radio. Each section of the park had its own workshop trailer, a mechanic, and water bowser which allowed patrols to stay in the field for extended periods of time.
Remembering David Sheldrick
In 1949, David was tasked with transforming 5,000 miles of inhospitable wilderness into an international tourist attraction. He succeeded. By the early seventies, the park contained a 200-bed lodge, almost 200 miles of roads, twelve airstrips, staff housing, multiple entrance gates, camp grounds with washing facilities, and elephant-proof road signs. Regularly Daphne would describe David’s vast knowledge of plant life and animal behavior. He was a constant champion for the wildlife within the park. David’s death in 1977 was devastating for Daphne. He was the love of her life, and in his memory, she helped established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
The Elephant Orphanage
Daphne was an expert in her own right and soon requests were coming in asking for her help with their orphaned baby elephants. Like most babies, elephants also require regular feedings of milk about every three hours. This task requires knowledge of how to blend a viable elephant milk substitute and extreme patience. At first, Daphne would drive long distances so that she could feed the elephants every three hours. But as more requests came in, she asked that the elephants be brought to her home where she and her daughter could better care for them. Daphne came to the conclusion that to properly help raise elephant orphans, she would need to be better equipped. She needed stables, supplies, and staff. Daphne got her wish and the orphanage was born from a continuous stream of elephants and rhinos that came into their care.
This book is aptly named. The central themes throughout are Daphne’s loving relationship with David Sheldrick, her unique life experiences, and ultimately her passion for animals and Africa. I thoroughly enjoyed this read, particularly for Daphne’s descriptive writing style. She brings out the sounds, tastes and smells within her vivid narrative. I enjoy when a book can reach inside me and pull out emotions. There is an instance when David had to put down an elephant that was dying from a poacher’s poison arrow. Reading that page brought tears to my eyes. It’s because that particular elephant was a regular character of the story. Tsavo National Park and the orphaned animals are as much characters in this book as the people are. In many cases, Daphne uses page after page to describe interactions between the orphaned animals. Overall this is a beautiful story about love and the wilds of Africa. I’ll summarize by paraphrasing a line from Daphne; This was just a taste of what’s to come, each day spiced by the unexpected and the unforeseen.