Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story

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9781250033376: Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story

"Astonishing...You may be tempted after the last page to sell all your possessions and join [Sheldrick's] cause."―The Boston Globe

The first person to successfully raise newborn elephants, Dame Daphne Sheldrick has saved countless African animals from certain death. In this indelible and deeply heartfelt memoir, Daphne tells of her remarkable career as a conservationist and introduces us to a whole host of orphans―including Bushy, a liquid-eyed antelope, and the majestic elephant Eleanor. Yet she also shares the incredible human story of her relationship with David Sheldrick, the famous Tsavo National Park warden whose death inspired the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the orphans' nursery, where Daphne works to this day. From her tireless campaign to preserve Kenya's wildlife to the astonishing creatures she befriended along the way, Love, Life, and Elephants is alive with compassion and humor, providing rare insight into the life of one of the world's most fascinating women.

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About the Author:

Dame Daphne Sheldrick is a Kenyan author, conservationist, and expert in animal husbandry, particularly the raising and reintegrating of orphaned elephants into the wild. From 1955 to 1976, Sheldrick was co-warden of Kenya's Tsavo National Park.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

LOVE, LIFE, AND ELEPHANTS (Chapter One)1 Settlers

'What we are is God's gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.'

- Anon

It was quite by chance that my ancestors came to settle in Kenya.

In the early 1900s my Great-Uncle Will was living a relatively prosperous life in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. His family - my great-grandmother was Will's sister - had left rural Scotland for Africa in the mid 1820s. A truly capable and resourceful man, Will had worked hard in difficult conditions, farming the land, raising a family and helping others around him to survive the effects of the Boer Wars. He was garrulous and charismatic, a twinkle in his eye, passionate about big game hunting, and from time to time could afford a ticket to Kenya on one of the early steamships to satiate his lust for the land and the animals. The great profusion of wildlife, the rolling grass plains - the storehouse of life itself - Kenya was where his heart seemed to soar, where he was transformed from the inside out. 

It was during one of these hunting expeditions, in the spring of 1907, that Will befriended Sir Charles Eliot, Governor of the fledgling British colony of Kenya. The two men were drawn to each other: Will, a true pioneer, was the sort of man who made things happen, and Eliot, a true politician, was the sort of man who made other men offers to make things happen. Out in the bush one morning, Eliot put an intriguing proposition to my great-uncle: if he could bring in twenty families to Kenya, then the Government would allocate them free land on which to settle. Just that week, Eliot had received an order from the authorities back home to speed up the colony's development, to get on with expanding the single track beyond Nairobi and to get white settlers in to increase trade and the resources for the railway. The British Government had so far forked out around £5 million and they wanted to see some return, sooner rather than later.

The reason for Britain's involvement in East Africa was not actually Kenya itself - it was Uganda and the source of the Nile. The Government wanted to prevent the Germans or French jeopardizing access to the Suez Canal, as this was the British trade route to India, the jewel in the Imperial crown. Building the railway was a massive undertaking, and thousands of Sikh labourers from British India were shipped in to undertake its construction. The railway snaked its way through the diverse habitats of Kenya from the port town of Mombasa - through dense inhospitable scrubland leading on to open grassland plains, once the native Masai's best grazing land. Once the dominant tribe, their numbers had been depleted by smallpox during the late 1900s.

Great-Uncle Will was so smitten with the Kenyan bush, so captivated by the idea of actually living in this astonishing country, that he cut short his trip to return home, determined to recruit the families that Eliot required. He didn't need to look too far, as this branch of my family was full of prolific breeders. He himself had spawned seventeen children from his three wives, and they in turn had produced many others. Excited and alive to this opportunity, he did a good job persuading some of his immediate family to agree. Then he turned to his sister - my Great-Granny Aggett. She and her husband - and their not inconsiderable brood of eight children - were perfect targets. Things had not been going too well for Great-Grandpa Aggett. Having acquired a taste for alcohol and gambling, in cahoots with none other than the local bank manager, who saw to it that his mounting overdraft was conveniently overlooked, he was up to his eyes in debt. The family's precious old homestead and once prosperous farm in the Eastern Cape had been sold off and he was much chastened by the consequence of his addictions. Despite approaching sixty, he was keen to be rid of his tarnished reputation, to begin a new life. Will was offering him that lifeline and he rather gratefully signed up.

The Aggetts' eldest daughter, Ellen Margaret, had been widowed early on in her marriage. Left with two young sons, Stanley and Bryan, she had returned to live with my great-grandparents. Ellen was a feisty young woman, known for her fortitude and resourcefulness, and was more than willing to taste adventure. As it turns out, this decision was to have a direct effect on me: Ellen was my grandmother, and her seven-year-old son Bryan would eventually become my father.

Will was a marvellous storyteller, and his golden words conjured up the magnificence of Kenya, breathing life into his images of the land, the people and the wildlife. Quite simply, he saw Kenya as another Eden, the prospect of living there an invitation to paradise. In just a few months his powers of persuasion were enough to convince twenty families to want to up sticks from the Eastern Cape, to trek through the uncharted interior of Eastern Africa and begin life over. These were people descended from solid pioneering stock - stoical, adventurous, enamoured of Africa - the ability to uproot, survive and build new lives in their blood. They had listened to their parents' epic stories of crossing new lands and were somewhere hardwired to feel the desire to experience the challenges for themselves. I would love to be able to listen back down the years to what was discussed at Will's legendary planning meetings. To us, in these days of sophisticated travel when we can get almost anything we need anywhere in the world, an unimaginable amount of planning and thought had to go into the journey. Although the landing post in Mombasa was still the ancient coastal hub it had always been, and inland the railway had reached Nairobi, the travellers had to be self-supporting in every respect. There would be nothing to help them on the way - no roads, no shops, no doctors, dentists or chemists. They would be entirely responsible for keeping themselves, their babies, their children and their livestock alive and well.

It wasn't just a matter of a few provisions. When - and if  - they arrived at the allocated spots, they would need a nucleus of breeding stock, as well as farm implements, seeds, tools, furniture and, most importantly, guns and ammunition to protect themselves and their property. The women had to decide on the bare essentials in the way of cooking pots, blankets, bedlinen, materials, haberdashery, medicine, clothes and toiletries. Of untold preciousness was the legacy of their settler ancestors - densely handwritten notes of practical hints on self-sufficiency, detailing how to make soap and candles; how to preserve and bottle foodstuffs; how to make clothes; how to educate your children on the go; how to use herbs, berries and wild plants to prevent and cure illness; and how to address emotional wobbles and the inevitable mood swings. Women back then were superb cooks, skilled seamstresses, tough and hardened to the perils of settler life, but for these families, the arduous nature of the journey and the harsh reality of starting life up all over again presented new challenges. 

Eventually the day dawned when all the preparations were complete. There was no turning back. Lying in Port Elizabeth harbour, on the eastern seaboard of South Africa, was the chartered German ship the Adolf Woermann, waiting to receive the families and all their possessions. And what possessions there were! Once loaded, the great ship must have looked - and sounded - like the proverbial Noah's Ark. It conjures a vivid image in my mind, picturing my grandmother and her tiny children on board engulfed by animals of wildly varying sizes: prime stock, work oxen, riding horses, milk and beef cattle, sheep, milking goats, poultry, ducks, geese and turkeys, domestic pets of every sort, as well as huge wagons, farm implements of every description, precious pieces of antique furniture, boxes of books, bottles, jars and sewing machines. There was no concept of travelling light back then! 

My children and grandchildren are so rooted here now, so settled, so much part of this land, that it touches me deeply to imagine the sheer emotion of the moment when the boat slowly drew away from the docks, with every single member on board waving a tearful farewell to all their loved ones on shore. None of them knew what the future held for them in a new land, and they must all have been conscious that there would be great dangers in the years that lay ahead. And they also knew that for the older members of the family this separation would be final, for they would be unlikely to set foot on their home soil again. It must have taken great courage, particularly on the part of the women, to launch themselves and their children on such a gamble into the unknown.

The Adolf Woermann sailed for two long months. The journey was not without its difficulties - dreadfully cramped conditions, illness and the inevitable death of livestock. But coming into the picturesque harbour of Mombasa against the backdrop of a splendid tropical sunrise must have been like the arrival in a promised land. As the adults transferred the contents of the ship to the docks, the children ran around in delight despite the punishing humidity and heat. Mombasa was a vibrant, noisy place, bright with the colourful goods of Arabic and Indian traders, the smells of spices, perfumes and exotic foods. The streets were lined with white frangipani blossom and coconut palms, and while the sun was setting there was time to stop and enjoy a meal in the old part of the town.

Before the journey inland could begin, all the livestock had to be swaddled in a protective hessian covering, leaving just a small opening for the eyes and nose, since they would be journeying across the notorious tsetse-infested nyika. This formidable and inhospitable barrier of arid scrub country was known as the Taru Desert, described in the 1870s by the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson as 'weird and ghastly...eerie and full of sadness, as if here is all death and desolation'. Just one bite from an infected fly could be catastrophic, transmitting the wasting livestock disease trypanosomiasis, for which there was at that time no known cure. A few years earlier, most of the livestock used to transport materials to build the railway had been wiped out in this way and lessons had been learned. It must have taken days to cut the cloth and secure it around each animal. Not an enviable job.

Once the cattle were ready and the train loaded with myriad possessions, the next stage of the journey could begin. However, even the preparations necessary for a train to depart from a stop were complicated, for in those early days the wood-burning steam locomotives depended on a plentiful supply of both wood and water. There was no piped water in Mombasa, so supplies had to be drawn from two eighty-foot wells, or pumped from a river four miles away. Getting the train going was a big event. As a child listening to my father tell my brother, sisters and me the story of how our family came to be living in Kenya, I particularly loved the story-of-the-journey as it came to be known, and to this day I can shut my eyes and transport myself on board, catching the buzz of anticipation as the train drew out of Mombasa. There must have been a little shiver of apprehension running through some of the mothers in the group: the track had only recently been constructed, and although they were disembarking halfway along the route at Nairobi, they no doubt worried about some of the more shaky wooden trestle bridges and the deep ravines the train passed over. All the adults making the journey knew about the grisly deaths suffered by some fifty Indian and African construction workers in 1898 as they were building a bridge over the Tsavo River. It was this incident that had led to the lions in the area being dubbed the 'man-eaters of Tsavo', no doubt stirring fear in some of the less hardy members of my family.

While my experiences of life in Kenya are different in so many respects to those of my ancestors, as they woke to their first morning aboard the train they saw the same dawn unfolding in glorious brilliance, the sky washed with varying shades of crimson, pink, rust and gold, that I do to this day. Their tired eyes, rimmed with the red dust of the nyika, also gazed, as mine have, spellbound across the broad expanse of the great rolling Athi plains. From the windows, they could see before them the bounty of Nature - oceans of wildebeest, zebra, antelope, gazelles, giraffe, great herds of buffalo and even rhinos. The children were electrified by the transformation of the landscape, and the journey opened their eyes to sights they had never seen before. A pride of lions beside the track, lolling replete and lazy beneath a lone tree on the plain, prompted the driver to halt the train in order to allow the passengers a longer look. In fact most of the time Great-Uncle Will and others journeyed on a special platform on the prow of the locomotive so that they could see the passing game herds more clearly. Inveterate hunter that he was, Great-Uncle Will on numerous occasions actually stopped the train to embark on a full-blown hunt, when a particularly good trophy had been spotted near the track. The train would merely wait for the hunters to return, and the other passengers did not object to the delay, happy to take part in the fun as spectators.

How lightly my ancestors shot at animals. For us, now living in a different era, conscious of the decimation of wildlife and privileged even to glimpse such creatures in a wild situation, the actions of my forefathers appear shocking and difficult to understand. But at that time the maps of Kenya showed little on their empty faces, and beyond each horizon stretched another and another of endless untouched acres, sunlit plains of corn-gold grass, wooded luggas, lush valleys, crystal-clear waters. And everywhere there was wildlife in such spellbinding profusion that it is difficult for those who were never witness to this to even begin to visualize such numbers. At the time no one ever imagined that any amount of shooting could devastate the stocks of wild game, let alone all but eliminate it.

Once the train reached Nairobi, the passengers had to disembark, see to some administrative formalities and make their final preparations for the great inland trek. Nairobi, originally a pastoral area inhabited by the Masai, had been founded in 1899 as a supply depot for the Uganda Railway, becoming the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate a few years later. In 1907 Nairobi was in the process of being rebuilt, having been decimated by a recent outbreak of the plague. When my family arrived, it was still a jumble of sheds, shacks and Indian dukas cut by one tree-lined cart-track known as Government Road. Most structures were raised up on stilts to keep inhabitants from sinking into the surrounding swamps. There was dust everywhere - it coated every visible surface and tree. But it was busy and vibrant, teeming with Indian railway workers, street vendors, rickshaws and mule buggies, and the family were entranced. The elders of the group rested overnight in the one hotel - the Norfolk - which overlooked a swamp where the wild creatures of the plains came to drink in their teeming numbers. It was a perfect place for Great-Uncle Will. Never one to pass up an opportunity, on the first night he left a drink on the Norfolk verandah to dash out and bag a good trophy spotted at the swamp, and on another night he did not even have to leave his drink, but managed to secure a trophy from the verandah itself.

Soon enough, though, once the ox-wagons were loaded and ready, the family was ready for the trek inland. Dressed in their heavy...

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