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10 Questions for Daphne Sheldrick

3 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

How hard is raising elephants?
In early infancy, it’s very, very difficult because their milk is very specialized. And they’re milk-dependent for the first three years of their life. If they’ve been well-meaningly fed cow’s milk before they’re brought to us, we usually can’t rescue them. Their stomachs are in such turmoil.

What do you feed them?
Our nursery in Nairobi uses human baby formula. Most of the fat is vegetable, mainly coconut. The nearest thing to the fat in elephant’s milk is coconut.

In your new book, Love, Life and Elephants, you claim that elephants mourn their dead. How can you tell?
I’ve been working with elephants for 50 years. Just like humans, elephants will come back to the body of a loved one for years to grieve and mourn and cover it with sticks and leaves.

You transfer elephants from the nursery to a rehabilitation station in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park. How do wild elephants treat the newbies?
With such an outpouring of love — touching of the trunks and urinating, which signals joy. They’ll visit them at the stockade and take them for a night out in the wild. Once young elephants have experienced a night out, they begin to find their human keepers, whom they love dearly, rather boring because they can’t walk 100 miles in a day or communicate via infrasound.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about elephants?
Their intelligence. Elephants understand that ivory is the reason they’re being killed. There are very, very few big bulls with big ivory left in the world, and the two or three still in Tsavo have become nocturnal. I’ve seen a bull with big tusks by the road turn his back, trying to hide the ivory.

You’ve raised and returned to the wild buffalo, rhinos, zebras, ostriches, warthogs and antelopes. Which are the hardest?
Rhinos are easy to raise, very difficult to reintegrate because they’re fiercely territorial and will kill strangers. Everything works with scent. You’ve got to walk the new rhinos round the communal dung piles and urinals of the wild ones for three years before the scent of that newcomer is accepted.

Aren’t rhinos aggressive?
They come in, even little babies, just wanting to kill you, and all you do is get a broom and scratch the tummy through the bars, and the rhino just can’t resist that. He’ll collapse, and the feet go up.

Rhino horn is now trading at $65,000 a kilogram — more than gold. Given the market forces, can rhinos be saved?
Only if the market in China and the Far East can be educated. The horn is a fingernail. If people bit their nails, they’d be getting the same thing.

Elephant populations are falling, and international laws designed to protect them aren’t working, so what can be done?
Everyone who’s got a stockpile of ivory must destroy the stockpile. And they must be compensated for doing so, and all ivory must be taken off the market totally while the Far Eastern people are educated about the nature of elephants. There’s no hope as long as there’s a trade in ivory.

Where do you end up on the debate about zoo elephants?
The worst thing we do to humans is give them life imprisonment for some terrible crime. There are lots of animals that can have a quality of life in a zoo situation, but not an elephant.

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