Let’s start with a friendly reviewer disclaimer. I usually read fiction because I enjoy stories about uncompromising people who do extraordinary things. Memoir, biography, and autobiography don’t typically interest me because I couldn’t care less about famous or political figures and, to be frank, most of my attention for someone’s struggles and triumphs through life is reserved for family and friends. Enter Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her astounding autobiography, Love, Life and Elephants; An African Love Story. The book charts Sheldrick’s life from her grandparents’ immigration to Kenya, through her childhood playing in the WWII biltong camps, into her star-crossed love story, and the creation of her internationally praised animal orphanage that has saved hundreds of elephant’s lives. Fiction pales in comparison.
I wasn’t immediately hooked, however. The book starts unevenly with an account of how Sheldrick’s family came to settle in Kenya. She depicts them as brave, adventurous pioneers–and they undoubtedly embodied these qualities–but the unspoken imperialist presumption left me somewhat uncomfortable throughout the first chapter. It was only after the narrative settled into recounting Sheldrick’s own life that I became thoroughly engrossed.
Daphne Sheldrick was born and raised on her family’s ranch in Gilgil, sixty miles northwest of Nairobi. She attended boarding schools in Nakura and Nairobi and earned a full university scholarship in England, but decided instead to marry her high school sweetheart, Bill, who was an assistant warden at the recently created Tsavo National Park. The newlyweds moved to Tsavo, where David Sheldrick, a man who “was renowned for his film-star looks and had…an unusual reverence for life as well as a deep empathy for animals,” presided as warden. A gorgeous love story ensues, but it is only the first of many.
Sheldrick paints Tsavo so vividly that the landscape becomes a beloved character in its own right.
…opening my eyes to the spell of space and the contrasts that transformed the semi-desert of the brick red earth and grim leafless trees in the dry season to a vibrant painted paradise after the first rains. The first precious drops of rain had an intoxicating effect on us all.”
In this rugged environment, there is a constant struggle for survival. The park wardens battle poachers in an effort to protect the local elephants from the horrific and pervasive ivory trade, and a seeming parade of orphaned fauna gravitate towards the human occupants of Tsavo. Sheldrick gives detailed accounts of dozens of animals she cared for over the years, from Rufus the rhino to the tiny buffalo weaver named Gregory Peck. Some of the orphans thrive and others die, a few in such tragic circumstances that I was in tears, but every loss is framed by Sheldrick’s enduring hope and belief in the natural order.
In tending these orphaned animals, Sheldrick developed the correct formula and methods to feed infant elephants. Prior to her discoveries, I learned that if an elephant calf lost his mother to poachers before he was ready to be weaned, he was essentially doomed to die. Sheldrick’s continued work and legacy has saved hundreds of elephant’s lives and earned her the honor of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire–which is just fun to say!–yet her tone throughout the book is one of humility and humor. She tenderly recalls fond memories and faces every challenge to each elephant’s survival with simple and complete purpose. Each chapter feels as if you are being treated to a lovely afternoon in Sheldrick’s garden, stopping for a spot of tea as she chats about subjects like animal telepathy and her childhood camping trips where lions could be heard licking the sides of their tent.
Although Sheldrick highlights many different animal species, Love, Life, and Elephants is largely a stunning display of the impact humans make on elephants’ lives, from the heartbreaking scenes of slaughter to the lifelong friendship between an elephant matriarch and one very inspiring woman. I was in awe of Dame Daphne Sheldrick by the end of this book and you will be, too. Her life proves exactly how much extraordinary good one person can do.