Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Born from one family’s passion for Kenya and its wilderness, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is one of the pioneering conservation organisations for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa.
Founded in 1977 by Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick DBE, in memory of her late husband, famous naturalist and founding Warden of Tsavo East National Park, David Leslie William Sheldrick MBE, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust claims a rich and deeply rooted family history in wildlife and conservation. In 1948, David Sheldrick began his renowned career within the Royal National Parks of Kenya, where he worked unwaveringly for over two decades transforming Tsavo, a previously unchartered and inhospitable land, into Kenya’s largest and most famous National Park. David Sheldrick stands out, even today, as one of Africa’s most famous and proficient pioneer National Park Wardens.
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is best known for their phenomenal work with elephants, operating the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. While the Orphans’ Project is the heart of the organisation, it cannot exist in isolation and over the last 40 years the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has developed an extensive, multi-faceted approach to conservation to ensure a greater and long-lasting impact for wildlife. Through their Aerial, Anti-Poaching and Mobile Veterinary Units, they are continuously and actively safeguarding the natural environment and providing immediate assistance to wild animals in need. Their renowned Orphans’ Project allows them to respond and rescue orphaned baby elephants, rhinos, and all other wild species across Kenya, so that they might enjoy a life back in the wild when grown up.
We had the amazing opportunity to ask a few questions to Angela Sheldrick. Daughter of David and Daphne Sheldrick, Angela was brought up in the wilds of Tsavo East. She has been exposed to Kenya’s wildlife and wild places all her life and heads The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and all its operations in Kenya and has done since 2001.
Having a family DNA like yours, with your parents being pioneers in the field of Wildlife Conservation, we can only imagine the great life lessons passed on to you. Which values do you treasure the most until today?
Growing up, immersed in nature, my family was much larger than just its human members. I grew up surrounded by an eclectic assortment of creatures, including Bunty the impala, Jimmy the kudu, and my special friend, Baby the eland. In this environment, I could not help but be instilled with a respect for our natural world. I grew up guided by a need to do better for all life that shares our beautiful world and to use one of my favourite quotes from my mum, “We only have one home, the Earth, and we as the dominant species must take care of it."
In day to day, that means showing patience, empathy, determination to successfully rehabilitate orphaned elephants, courage and an ability to turn the page when, despite all our efforts, an infant might not pull through. Daphne was never daunted by a challenge and neither are we – taking in orphaned elephants that few believe might survive, or have a wild future, like Rama, our newest rescue who is a severely bow-legged little elephant. But we must always try.
Then, there is the humbling lesson that despite our decades of wildlife conservation, we still have much to understand. My father, David Sheldrick, said it best: “The more one knows about animals, the more one realises how much we still have to learn." I have spent my entire life around elephants, yet they continue to astonish me in the very best way. We can all learn so much from these social species, committed as they are to family and nothing makes me prouder than watching the elephants in action: dependent orphans inquisitively meeting wild friends, bulls lazing in the mud bath, ex orphans arriving with their families in tow, calves gambolling between the legs of their nannies. Put simply, they never cease to amaze us and we shall never stop in our efforts to keep them safe.
How many reintegration centres does the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) operate?
It might first be helpful to explain what our pioneering Reintegration Units are and do. Our ultimate goal is for each orphan that we rescue is to transition from our care and return to the wild. But this must be at the right time, when they are no longer milk-dependent and can hold their own against the challenges and threats they will face in the wild. A Reintegration Unit then, is like College or University, where the orphans can hone their wild instincts and ultimately return to a free life. Interestingly, every orphan is different and explores elephant society at a pace that works for them – and it is the orphans themselves that determine when they return to the wild.
To enable these orphans a second chance at a life in the wild, we operate three Reintegration Units as part of our Orphans’ Project in the Tsavo Conservation Area, which follow a blueprint for rehabilitation first established by my mother.
VOI is our original Unit, built in the very same place that Daphne and David first discovered the secrets of hand-raising orphaned milk-dependent wild animals. It sits in Tsavo East, with unending plains stretching out as far as the eye can see. Its mud bath and watering hole is a pivotal stop for elephant herds as they migrate through, affording lots of interactions with the orphans.
In 2004, we added Ithumba which is the jewel in Tsavo’s crown. The vast, unspoilt wilderness that Ithumba offers simply doesn’t exist in Kenya anymore, and it is a true haven for elephants, with wild herds in the area secure in the knowledge that this is a place where they are protected. Over 60 orphaned elephants have returned to the wild from here, with 15 calves born to female orphans (that we know of!). Incredibly, and testament to the strong bonds forged between our Keepers and their charges, these orphans choose to share their new bundles of joy with us only hours after birth – an incredible privilege.
Lastly, there is Umani Springs, built especially for more vulnerable orphans in our care. A cast of incredibly brave characters who have surmounted the odds to be with us today call Umani home, surviving snare, gunshot, spear and maiming by predators. While some might not be able to cover the vast distances needed in more arid environments, in the Kibwezi Forest, they have forage and fresh water, protection and wild herds, right on their doorstep. It’s no understatement to say the herd here is blazing through uncharted territory. Importantly, this specialist centre has allowed us to deliver on our promise that we make to every orphan, enabling even those elephants who have been robbed of everything to live a full and wildlife, in a beautiful safe environment that we manage and protect positioned within an extensive unspoilt ecosystem.
It should be said that creating these Units is no small task. Before establishing Ithumba, we installed a 63-kilometre electric fenceline, which continues to be patrolled daily. We also assisted in re-establishing the KWS headquarters in the North, funding necessities like rangers’ accommodation, offices and workshops, fuel tanks, water catchment tanks, desalination and the installation of a generator. For Umani, we had worked for years in the area taking on a concession to manage the forest in partnership with the Kenya Forest Service and Kenya Wildlife Service, to stop illegal extractive activities and ensure it became the safe haven for wildlife it is today.
How many animals are currently under your care?
There are currently more than 80 orphaned elephants in our care, not forgetting our characterful black rhinos Apollo and Maxwell. The latter is congenitally blind so will always have a protected home with us. However, our promise to rescue, raise, and reintegrate orphans back into the wild isn’t just one that we make to elephants - it’s a commitment that we make to all wild orphans who pass through our care. So there is also an ever-growing menagerie being cared for at our Kaluku Field Headquarters, including an orphaned eland, oryx and lesser kudu, as well as Bristle, an orphaned ostrich. As with the elephant and rhino orphans, these individuals will reintegrate into local populations their own pace, although many choose to stay close by to their human family.
Next to the Orphans’ Projects, the DSWT is actively combating poaching. Could you explain a little bit how does it work?
Raising elephants is just a small part of what we do because without taking care of the bigger picture, it would be futile. We need to know that when these baby elephants go back into the wild, we have the resources in place, together in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, to make sure that they’re protected for the future. Not just the orphans, but the giants of the plains that mentor them too.
That’s why we operate 16 anti-poaching teams in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, drawn from people across Kenya, which are supported in the air by an Air Wing. These fully trained and equipped teams operate across Tsavo, and in Meru National Park, to ensure no illegal activities are taking place, and if they are, we are able to respond swiftly. It’s a big operation, but it’s so very needed. Logging, bushmeat snaring, bushfires, grazing charcoal burning – these are all illegal in conservation areas and present a huge threat to all wildlife, reducing forage and habitats. In a world where our natural environment is becoming increasingly patchwork, saving these remaining pockets of natural beauty is vital – not only for the orphans but for all animals too. It’s the eleventh hour now. We really have to ensure that what we have left is saved for future generations.
Over the years, we are also seeing more and more cases of human-wildlife conflict which is bringing the work of our Saving Habitats project to the fore. And, more immediately, we fund five Mobile Vet Units, headed by KWS Vets, who provide urgent veterinary care across the country to animals injured by poachers and human-wildlife conflict. They’ve attended 2,851 elephants to date – an astonishing number, working to keep our precious elephant population fighting fit so animals can continue to roam the plains as they were destined to.
How does the DSWT approaches sustainable travel?
All our conservation projects are rooted in a respect for our Natural World so it made sense that when we established our Eco Lodges, this mantra would guide a visitor’s experience. There are three camps in Ithumba, the northern area of Tsavo East National Park that David Sheldrick deemed a “jewel in the crown”; two on the Galana River, a nexus for Kenya’s most iconic species; and one in the Kibwezi Forest, a lush groundwater forest on the base of rolling hills.
All of our Eco Lodges follow the same template, that of low impact and built seamlessly into the surrounding areas paying special attention to their interiors as well, something I take great pride in doing. We let each Lodge out to a maximum of 10 guests, ensuring an exclusive stay and an approach that reduces our footprint and ensures properties are designed to preserve the integrity of the wilderness, and support conservation.
What makes these lodges doubly special is that all proceeds from the Eco Lodges are reinvested into our field projects, and support our vital conservation efforts in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service. Guests can experience our lifesaving work first-hand: Each Eco Lodge sits within close proximity to one of our three Reintegration Units, and guests are granted access to visit the orphaned elephants there.
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If you would like to visit or add it to your itinerary, contact us and let’s start plan your great next adventure.