Oct 31, 2008

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust - Kenya

David Sheldrick stands out, even today, as one of Africa's most famous and proficient Pioneer National Park Wardens of all time. With just one lorry, and a handful of labourers, he was given the task of transforming a huge chunk of inhospitable arid land, previously uncharted and known only as the Taru desert, into what today is Kenya's largest and most famous National Park - Tsavo.

David Leslie William Sheldrick M.B.E - 23.11.1919 - 13.06.1977


David Sheldrick stands out, even today, as one of Africa's most famous and proficient Pioneer National Park Wardens of all time. With just one lorry, and a handful of labourers, he was given the task of transforming a huge chunk of inhospitable arid land, previously uncharted and known only as the Taru desert, into what today is Kenya's largest and most famous National Park - Tsavo.

The Park was established by Act of Parliament in 1948 and David Sheldrick was the first Warden of the Eastern Sector, an area of just over 5,000 square miles, equal in size to Michigan State, Israel or Wales, a post he held until he was transferred to head the Planning Unit for all Kenya's Wildlife Areas at the end of 1976. David died 6 months later, but the legacy he left endures. His character is summed up by Tim Corfield, in the Author's Note to the Field Manual David's Notes and Records inspired - "The Wilderness Guardian" which is now a Text Book throughout Africa in most Wildlife Institutions and Training Schools, and an integral part of every Field Warden's library.

"How can I adequately portray this remarkable man and his achievements? The strong, handsome, weather-beaten face, the hard blue eyes, the powerful frame and large competent hands; the courteous manners, keen sense of humour and clear perceptive mind; his quietness, willpower and endurance, his deep underlying compassion and above all his integrity. To say that he is the finest man I have ever met is inadequate, for what is my experience as a yardstick. I can assert that he was a truly great man; but such a cliché Sheer over-use has blunted the impact of so many powerful words and descriptions.

I state simply, then, that in Tsavo National Park a man of quite exceptional stature imposed his will on men and machinery to preserve one of the world's great wildernesses, and thereby set a pattern of development for Kenya's National Parks that was to be the envy of the world. In a tragedy I outline below, this task killed David Sheldrick, but in his death he provided for us immeasurably, both in the systems he left behind, and also in the example of his fight to create a real wilderness sanctuary - not a glorified game ranch, not a Zoo Park, not a scientific experiment nor playground, but an area where wilderness could simply be. Central to his efforts was a belief that wildlife and wilderness were not to be guarded simply for their own sake, but they were a well-spring for our spiritual refreshment - yours and mine and that of future generations.

The Headquarters of Tsavo East under David Sheldrick was an extraordinary world of organisation and discipline. Uniformed Rangers on guard, others setting out on patrol; men in blue overalls tending huge tractors and earth moving machinery, lorries, trucks and trailers lined up for duty; everywhere the drone of machinery and the flash of arc welders as people bustled to and fro in purposeful activity. Then, within a few yards of the Headquarters perimeter, all this was left behind cleanly, and you moved into a contrasting world of thorn-bush and trees, hard horizons and red earth, elephant, gazelle, game trails, birds and birdsong, whisper of grass and rasp of insects - that stirring entanglement of life and space that is an African wilderness. Especially space, huge unfettered space; a vast openness that circles the horizon and arcs across brazen skies; an openness the cloistered townsman cannot comprehend, but which moves him, maybe even frightens him a little, whose timelessness exhilarates. Here the animals are left to live out their lives with the minimum of interference, as they have since time immemorial. Men and machines hold so much potential for domination and destruction, but David Sheldrick willed them the servants of this wilderness.

If you mentioned the word "development" to him, in the context of National Parks, a guarded look would come into his eyes for he was conscious always that the effects of development so easily become a spreading cancer of concrete, steel and squalor; an agglomeration of more and more machines and facilities for more and more people. National Parks he saw as areas offering escape from precisely these things. To properly guard a wilderness a man must have command of an exceptional range of special skills. To quote David himself:-

"A National Park Warden is required to carry out many and varied duties. Firstly he must had administrative ability for he will be in charge of a large staff responsible for the development and maintenance of roads, buildings, dams, boreholes, firebreaks, airfields, water supplies etc. He will be responsible for the training and welfare of an armed Ranger Force. In order to do this successfully he must first understand the meaning of discipline - to take orders and give orders in such a manner that they are obeyed. At the same time he must not ask those under him to perform tasks that he would not be prepared to do himself. He must have an understanding of ecology, be capable of reading and drawing up maps and plans, working out costs and preparing realistic estimates, be able to fly an aircraft, have a basic knowledge of the Law, be familiar with the habits of wild animals, and conversant with the use of firearms, for it may be necessary for him to destroy wounded or dangerous animals. He must be able to do this cleanly and without emotion. He should be an ambassador of National Parks at all times and show initiative and resourcefulness greater than that called for in most professions. Above all, he should be absolutely dedicated and of the utmost integrity" David Sheldrick had all these skills, and more.

He had spent time - snatches of it and long unbroken stretches in the quiet company of wild animals and he had learnt to observe and study them with sympathy and understanding, not in the superior and arrogant manner of the Scientists chalking up knowledge, but with the humility and empathy of a born naturalist. His alert and enquiring mind was finely tuned to the complexities of Nature, and the time he spent quietly absorbing her ways engendered strong convictions and a deep underlying confidence in her. This, as much as anything else, fuelled his dogged defence of a natural solution to Tsavo's much publicised "elephant problem" (in the early seventies). There were expedient options open to him which would have appeased the critics of his policies, but David Sheldrick knew that to take these would be an abrogation of his duty both as a Warden and a man. His resolve, then, to protect the wilderness was absolute, and he turned resolutely away from embarking on any precedent that could prove dangerous or lead to abuse, thereby jeopardising the sanctity of the Park he had created and loved so completely.

David's illustrious career with the Royal National Parks of Kenya was honoured in the 1962 Queen's Birthday Honours when he was awarded an D.B.E. His name is also immortalised in the World Wildlife Funds Roll of Honour. Posted to Nairobi at the end of 1976, he went bravely, and such is the mark of the man that he also went without bitterness, and he launched into his new duties with characteristic vigour. But Tsavo was still there, her wild spaces crying for protection. The home territory needed him as never before, her animals suffering an onslaught of killing and cruelty unprecedented in all her written history (under the new totally Government controlled Wildlife Conservation & Management Department.) As Tsavo had set a mark on his soul, so his life without it was exile.As David once laughingly remarked. "You can cut an old tree down, but you can't transplant it". His good natured humour never left him, but in that remark lay the truth. The old soldier simply could not turn his back and leave. He died on the 13th June 1977 from a massive heart attack.

His wife, Daphne, was beside him when he died, as she had been throughout their married life. Her love and loyalty and her own steadfast qualities gave him strength and purpose when times were dark, and brought fun and laughter into their home. Her garden was an oasis of gentleness and peace in a harsh environment, a place where wild animals could come and go, always welcome, always free. There could be no consolation for her loss, but from David's example there came strength and resolve to continue the purpose of his life. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was created in his memory, and as its Chairman, Daphne has been guiding its conservation activities ever since."

David Sheldrick was born in Egypt on 23rd November 1919, under the sound of gunfire during the first World War when his father was serving with the British Remounts. Both David's parents were born in British India, his father an English Coffee Planter in the Nilgiri Hills and his mother an English lady of noble birth raised on one of the famous Houseboats in Kashmir. Born in Egypt, christened in the Seychelles, David first came to Kenya as a babe in arms, when at the end of the First World War his father came to Kenya as part of the British Government's Soldier Settlement Scheme. He bought and took possession of a virgin piece of Africa which he developed into a thriving Coffee Estate near Mweiga, which became one of the models of its time. The famous Treetops Hotel, where Princess Elizabeth became Queen in 1952 was on the Sheldrick's Mweiga Estate and was originally built by David's father.

An only child, David's very English parents wanted the best for their son, and were prepared to make tough sacrifices in order to achieve this. These were the years of the great post-war depression of the 30's, before the age of commercial airtravel. David was sent to England for his schooling aged six, first to a Preparatory School and thereafter to the prestigious Canford School. For the next 11 years he grew up in England, spending holidays on a Scottish Estate whose owner took in Colonial boys. David did not see his parents again until he returned home having left school aged 17. When he eventually came back to Kenya as a young man, he walked straight past his mother on the Station without knowing who she was. During his school career he excelled both in sports and academically, but especially in practical skills such as woodwork. He boxed for both his schools throughout his school career and remained unbeaten. He was a skilled marksman, an outstanding horseman, excelling on the Polo Ground. In fact, David excelled in everything he undertook.

Having returned to Kenya, he worked on a highland farm on the Kinangop until the outbreak of the Second World War when he underwent the Officers Training Course at Nakuru before being drafted to The King's African Rifles, seeing active service in both Abyssinnia and Burma. David was quickly promoted to Major, the youngest officer in the K.A.R. to achieve this rank and given his own command of a battalion - the 5th Kings African Rifles. At the end of the War he was amongst those chosen to represent Kenya at the Victory Parade in London.

Thereafter he joined the first Tented Safari Company to be established in Kenya - the famous Safariland and was actually in Tanzania escorting the then Aga Khan on safari when the Kenya National Parks appointments were first advertised in 1948. The then famous Game Warden, Archie Ritchie urged the Director of National Parks, Colonel Mervyn Cowie, to keep a Post open for David Sheldrick who was already a very well known personality in the Colony. On return from the Aga Khan Safari David applied and was accepted and in April 1948 became the founder Warden of Kenya's largest and most important National Park - Tsavo. He was 28 years old at the time.

David's career with National Parks was equally as illustrious. For two years he walked the Park on foot following the elephant trails, only to find that poaching was already a very serious threat. A combined force of Game Department and National Parks personnel plus the Police was established under David's command, and all work was halted for the next three years whilst this problem was tackled and satisfactorily resolved.

David was ahead of his time. Way back in the early fifties, he was the first person to initiate a comprehensive collection of all the food plants of Elephants, long before any Scientist had even thought of studying elephants. Each plant was analysed for mineral content and nutritional value. He was the first to study the movement pattern of the elephant herds, and was able to counter the scientific theory that the Tsavo population comprised 10 descrete populations rather than just one.

He was the first person to rescue and hand-rear orphaned elephants, (but was successful only with those over two years of age). Many other orphans of misfortune were taken in, nurtured and set free when grown, including Black Rhinos, and most antelope species. David always insisted that any wild animal orphan was only on loan for its dependent years, but that ultimately it must go free. Through the rearing of the orphans David Sheldrick gained an in-depth understanding of the animal psyche and his knowledge of the fauna, the flora, the birds and the insects of his Park was unparalleled at the time. In his small private laboratory he conducted many experiments to fuel his quest for knowledge and gain an understanding of the intricacies of Nature.

An in-depth study of all archival material relating to the habitat of Tsavo as it was when the railroad from Mombasa to Nairobi was installed at the turn of the century was undertaken and masterminded by him; long hours spent perusing the descriptions of people such as Patterson, Krapf, Lugard, Meinetzhagen, Rebmann and Carl Peters. All anecdotes relevant to the Tsavo area were compiled into one Volume in order to gain an overview of what the vegetation of the area must have been like a century ago and an understanding of the natural processes of plant succession he was already beginning to observe taking place. He traced the root systems of the main tree species of Tsavo, carefully exposing and photographing them and comparing them to the root systems of the perennial grasses that were beginning to become established as the elephants modified the habitat from Commiphora woodland to grassland.

Using the orphaned elephants, he undertook experiments to determine the nature of an elephant's digestive tract - how long an orange took to pass through an elephant's gut and appear in the stools during the course of a day, weighing the dung against an estimate of fodder intake and analysing the protein content of the dung. He was the first to understand how Nature has made the elephant the most fragile through its inefficient digestive system, passing 6% protein in the dung.

He undertook a study of the small rodents and frogs of Tsavo, compiled a checklist of the birds and snakes and created a Herbarium over a five year period with every plant photographed in situ and in flower and thereafter pressed. One specimen of each now rests in Kew Gardens in London, another in the Herbarium in Nairobi and a third stored at the Research Centre in Voi. David has a small tree frog and a red mite named for him. He was the first person in the world to discover the presence of what is now known as Sheldrick Falls in the Shimba Hills forest - something that not even the locals new existed.

He made a study of the parasites specific to Black Rhino; the Rhinomusca flies that breed in the middens, the Filarial parasites responsible for the shoulder lesions often seen in Rhino, and other parasites specific to these ancient animals such as the Gyrostrigma fly. He was the first person ever to hatch one of these flies from a bot taken from the dung of one of our orphaned rhinos.

When David Sheldrick first came to Tsavo, not one road or building existed. 28 years later he left a Park fully developed with an infrastructure that was unmatched anywhere in East Africa - 1,087 kms of tourist all weather roads, 853 miles of administrative roads and 287 kms of anti-poaching tracks in the North, a Headquarters and Workshop to be proud of. With just a few labourers, he constructed the extensive concrete causeway across the Galana river, that has provided access to the remote Northern area of the Park for the past 60 years. The entire infrastructure of Tsavo East National Park, as it is today, owes its existence to him; five Park Entrance Gates, the first Self Catering Lodge at Aruba which was once so popular and so lovely; the vast mad-made lake that served the wild residents in terms of permanent water for the next 60 years, even the spectacular position of the Voi Safari Lodge affording breath-taking views over that immense land. He installed boreholes, and Windmills to quench the thirst of Tsavo's vast elephant herds, spreading the load and relieving congestion on the only two permanent rivers. More importantly, he left the blue print that has been the role model for today's paramilitary Field Force Rangers geared to combating the armed incursion of bandit poachers.

And in his Handing Over Notes David Sheldrick had this to say about the then Orphans Project which was already in existence in Tsavo:-

"Tsavo East has become internationally famous for its wildlife rehabilitation programme. Over the years many elephant, rhino, buffalo, lesser kudu, impala, eland, warthog, duiker, dikdik, zebra and other animals have been successfully rehabilitated after having been raised in captivity. Much extremely valuable information has been obtained retarding gestation, estrous cycles, growth rates, food preferences, ailments, social structure and general behaviour of these animals under circumstances that are quite unique. Their relationship with man has also given confidence to the wild animals living near the Headquarters, thus providing further opportunities for observation, and given untold pleasure to hundreds of visitors. It is important that the present relationship between man, hand-reared and wild animals should not be disrupted, for it has taken many years to achieve these results and a situation is developing whereby further information, unobtainable elsewhere and of the greatest importance is possible. The female elephant "Eleanor" is now 18 years old, and therefore reached an age when she is ready to breed. As she regularly mixes with the wild elephant, it is anticipated that she will be covered very shortly, probably during the coming rains. The birth of an African Elephant under the conditions that currently exist in Tsavo East would be sensational to say the least, but what is more important, it would present an opportunity to obtain very valuable data; the composition of elephant's milk during the different stages of lactation, growth rates, weight increase, tooth eruption etc. etc."

David Sheldrick was spared having to witness the plunder of his Park in the late seventies, eighties and early nineties which reduced its great elephant herds from 20,000 to a mere 6,000. But one thing we do know and that is today he would have been proud of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, established in his memory, and all of the conservation efforts The Trust has supported over the years, as well as the orphans project which has hand-reared for the first time ever, over 33 infant orphaned African Elephants most of whom are now growing up happily in Tsavo. Many other wild creatures have also been nurtured and ultimately returned where they rightly belong and some of our hand-reared elephants and rhinos have, indeed, given birth to wild born young and contributed greatly to our knowledge.

However David Sheldrick might have viewed the events that have taken place in Tsavo since his departure, we know that at least that to which he gave maximum priority is still intact - the pristine wilderness and the quality of life its inmates still enjoy. He would look down proudly on the results of the stand he made over the elephant issue, and approved of how the elephants have transformed sterile arid scrubland into a mosaic of rich habitats harbouring a greater biodiversity than ever before. And he would most certainly have approved of the record of the Trust that so proudly carries his name and strives so tirelessly to follow the guidelines he established in life perpetuating his unbending integrity and ideals, still acting as a custodian of "right" in Tsavo, still working to protect and nurture that great wilderness that David loved so well in life and doing so bravely without fear or favour, just as he would have wished.