There aren’t many autobiographies which hold the power to lock horns with my attention and hold it captive for days on end until the last page is turned. But this one did. Perhaps this is because I tend to be more interested in reading about wildlife and nature than people, and perhaps this is because Love, Life and Elephants contains a series of deeply gripping emotional tales of the personal lives of rescued and orphaned wild animals in Kenya’s famous Tsavo-East National Park.
Sheldrick is best known for her work caring for orphaned elephants. She helped pioneer husbandry methods to nurse motherless milk-dependent elephant calves to survival. Prior to her work these newly born mammals faced a near certain death once their mothers were lost. But Sheldrick’s memoir is about much more than this singular achievement. It’s a history of her British family homesteading in Kenya at a point in time when the Crown was encouraging colonization there; and their subsequent feeling of abandonment and cultural isolation when the British government ultimately pulled out of Kenya.
Her family felt torn between two countries: culturally they were English, but they had poured years of time and energy into carving productive farms and ranchland from the Kenyan soil. Sheldrick wrote: “Labelled the White Tribe of Africa, we were rapidly losing our stake in the country we viewed as home and could never be truly British again, due to long isolation in Africa. Nor could we be truly African either, because of our colour and culture.” Though Sheldrick viewed herself as an Englishwoman living in Kenya, she knew she could never return to Great Britain; and in this way she felt keenly the isolation and abandonment that her many wild orphans experienced, the singular sense of being on your own. Maybe it was this shared sentiment that led her to become a deeply nurturing and loving surrogate mother to so many motherless wild animals.
Though this memoir is filled with interesting familial anecdotes, what sucked me in most deeply was Sheldrick’s observations of wild giraffes, hyenas, rhinoceros, raptors of all kinds, elusive kudu, gazelles, lions, leopards, oryx, ostriches and — of course — elephants. By living within Tsavo-East for so long (she eventually married one of its directors), she grew to know individual animals and came to care for many that had been orphaned from natural causes or due to poaching.
With her naturalist’s eye for observing wildlife and their behavior, and her writerly sense of cinematic scene and significant detail, Sheldrick has penned a formidable book of both literary and factual value. Consider the following description of animals congregating on the banks of the Tiva River:
When the moonlight played on the pale sand, elephants emerged silently, as though from nowhere, dark galleons moving sedately, ivory trapping the moonbeams and gleaming silvery white. Then the rhinos arrived from the shadow on the riverbanks, each one intent on gaining possession of water in a hole in the sand dug by elephants and, having got one, modifying it to accommodate head and horn. And after night-long activity the theatre opened for the diurnal cast — monkeys and baboons came down from the trees; mongooses scampered about, followed by giraffe, zebras, elands, flocks of sand grouse; doves, weavers, starlings, vulturine guinea fowl and then the raptors, falcons, hawks and eagles, in search of easy pickings. Gradually more and more creatures stepped into the riverbed to slake their thirst at the elephant holes, a symbiotic mass of coexistence, until an alarm sounded at the approach of a predator — a leopard, the lions, hyenas or large pack of hunting dogs. At this point the stage was rapidly vacated in a thundering of hooves and a flurry of flapping wings. (pg. 88-89)
We learn midway through her memoir of Samson and Fatuma, the first elephant orphans Sheldrick was exposed to and how she began to learn of the species’ behaviors through them. But the truly young elephant calves, the newly born that were still solely dependent on their mother’s milk proved so tricky to keep alive that Sheldrick’s husband told her it was “kinder not to even try.” Shmetty was the first elephant Sheldrick tasted a bit of success with. After experimenting with all sorts of concoctions to mimic elephant’s milk, a certain formula containing coconut milk seemed to work. This was the first baby elephant she worked with that lost its gaunt, starved appearance, put on weight and began playing spiritedly with other baby animals in the orphanage. Unfortunately, Shmetty died at age six months, possibly from separation issues when Sheldrick travelled to South Africa and the calf was left with a surrogate keeper.
The lessons learned from the success of keeping Shmetty alive so much longer than any other newly born elephant calf propelled Sheldrick on the path to cracking the elephant orphan code. The next pairs of orphans she rescued, Juma and Bibi, lived past the age of one but died from complications of care unrelated to what had been the trickiest issue: nutrition. Her learning curve continued with babies Olmeg, Ol Jori, and Taru; and Sheldrick also became aware of the supportive power of having non-profits aid in her mission of rescuing very young elephant orphans. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, named in memory of beloved husband who died too young, began in 1987 and is still operational today.
Anecdotes of elephant poaching form a dark undercurrent to Sheldrick’s otherwise inspirational tale of the wildlife in Tsavo-East. She and her husband witnessed the wreckage of poaching, not just in grisly carcasses discovered, but also in the social disruption it caused to elephant family units. And, of course, they wrestled with raising the orphans spawned by the violent acts of killing the adults for their ivory.
Love, Life and Elephants is a deeply enjoyable read on the whole. I think it’s important to recognize when you begin it that you are entering a memoir written by a woman who held a particular cultural perspective which reflects a specific point in time. I’ve read other reviews of this book that were critical of her seeming omission of people of color who must have helped with caring for the wild animal orphans, and the elephants in particular. And I agree it would have been nice to know more about the personalities and contributions of some of these workers. But I don’t fault Sheldrick for how she wrote the book. This is her version of her life and achievements, and the way it is written reflects her experience as a white Englishwoman living in Kenya in the second half of the twentieth century. And I, for one, am deeply glad she was there.