Book review: An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick

Daphne Sheldrick reckons she is alive today only because of the extraordinary telepathic abilities of elephants.

And her miraculous survival from almost certain death could not be more fitting as this remarkable woman has devoted her life to rescuing elephants, the animals she describes as the world’s ‘most emotionally human land mammals.’

Sheldrick’s moving and magical memoir of her 50 years living with and rescuing elephants was inspired by a terrifying ordeal in Kenya’s 8,000-square-mile Tsavo National Park in 1994.

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The book is the fascinating story of her passion for animals and Africa, and her never-ending love for her husband, the celebrated naturalist and park warden David Sheldrick, whose life and death shaped her own destiny.

That she was the first person ever to have successfully hand-reared newborn elephants and faced being trampled by one is an irony not lost on Sheldrick.

On that fateful day 18 years ago, Sheldrick and a friend were searching for Eleanor, the treasured orphan elephant that had been rescued over 40 years earlier and then returned to the wild.

Eleanor was Sheldrick’s oldest friend so when she walked towards her from a wild herd and allowed the folds under her chin to be caressed, it was agreed that this would be a perfect photo opportunity.

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But it wasn’t Eleanor – Sheldrick had by now realised this animal was stockier and had paler eyes. It was too late; within seconds the elephant lifted Sheldrick with her trunk and threw her ‘like a piece of weightless flotsam high through the air.’

She smashed down on some boulders 20 paces away and knew at once the impact had shattered her right leg.

As the giant animal charged towards her and towered over her broken body, Sheldrick closed her eyes and began to pray... but the elephant was now trying to help by lifting her with its trunk as it would with its fallen young. When ordered by Sheldrick to stop, the cow elephant did so immediately.

Sheldrick later discovered that Eleanor knew this elephant and is convinced that using their sophisticated communication methods had somehow told her that she was ‘a friend.’

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Born in Nairobi in 1934, Sheldrick was raised on her father’s farm where animals, ‘their sounds, their scents, their behaviour,’ was part of the everyday fabric of life.

Her first pets were an impala, a waterbuck and a dwarf mongoose but it was when she began caring for an orphaned baby bushbuck (a forest antelope), that she gained her first real insight into the wonders of the animal kingdom.

At only 19, she married an assistant warden in Nairobi National Park who was later assigned to help develop the newly designated Tsavo National Park 200 miles away.

Now the mother of a young daughter, Sheldrick’s marriage was not blissful and when she met the park’s principal warden David Sheldrick – renowned for his knowledge of African wildlife and film star looks – she was soon losing her heart to Tsavo’s wild beauty and the man in charge of protecting it.

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She and David, 17 years her senior, both got divorced, married, had a daughter of their own and settled into family life on Tsavo where elephants became their lifelong passion – learning how they tick, rescuing orphans, discovering that coconut milk is the best for raising elephant calves and organising anti-poaching and conservation campaigns.

David’s premature death from a heart attack in 1974 left Sheldrick shattered but once again her beloved elephants helped her through by teaching her how to mourn and grieve, but then to turn the page and focus on ‘giving to the living.’

In 1987, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was formed and in 2006 she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire by the Queen, the first knighthood to be awarded in Kenya since the country became independent in 1963.

Sheldrick still runs the trust and oversees the care of all the elephants. After nursery care in Nairobi, three-year-old elephants are moved to re-integration camps in the Tsavo National Park where they learn how to survive in the wild.

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The trust also manages anti-poaching teams, mobile veterinary units and community outreach programmes.

Touching, funny and written with warmth and compassion, Sheldrick’s inspirational memoir is a story of human love, animal love and love for a beautiful country, its people and its wildlife.

Respect for animals has been the hallmark of her career, a recognition that they are ‘more ancient, more complex and in many ways more sophisticated than us.’

(Viking, hardback, £16.99)

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