Daphne Sheldrick, one of the African elephants’ greatest friends, has died at the age of 83. I met her once, very briefly, possibly in 1984, at her orphanage on the edge of Nairobi National Park in Kenya. I was in the company of my mother’s older sister Anne, who was then living in nearby Langata and was herself an honorary ranger on the Park, rather idiosyncratically studying bushbabies and hyenas (which she called “Poofies”). At the orphanage, we nuzzled baby rhinos and young elephants, some of the over 200 orphans Sheldrick and her team had saved from human destruction. Born near Gilgil, in western Kenya, not far from where my grandparents farmed, Sheldrick left only to study in the US. In the 1960s she worked with elephant pioneers Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, and married David Sheldrick, then Warden at Tsavo National Park. When David died in 1977, Daphne set up the David Sheldrick Elephant Trust, and the orphanage just outside the Kenyan capital, in his honour. It will continue to run under the management of her daughter Angela.
Daphne related some her experiences – importantly the terrible drought of the early 1970s in Tsavo, which killed a lot of elephants and became a benchmark for pro-culling arguments subsequently – in her book The Tsavo Story (1973). In this she became the first of a remarkable group of women to research and write about the African elephants.
To focus on these women – in their way the Jane Goddalls and Dian Fosseys of the elephant world – is in no way to diminish the achievement of the even more numerous and committed male researchers, from Ian Parker in Kenya to India’s Raman Sukumar and South Africa’s Rudi van Aarde, nor of innumerable Africans whose critical role in conservation is too easily effaced. But I do think the women writers have collectively contributed uniquely to elephant studies.
In 1975, Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton published Among the Elephants, relating their experiences and studies amongst the elephants of Manyara in northern Tanzania. The rather unconventional Iain had pursued a PhD at Oxford, supervised by the equally unconventional zoologist Nico Tinbergen (Tinbergen also supervised the distinctly odd Lyall Watson, who would write the quasi-fantasy Elephantoms about the Knysna elephants). Among the Elephants boasts a Foreword by Tinbergen, in which he highlights Oria’s unique contribution.
Oria Rocco, a French-Italian who had been farming near Naivasha, fell in love with the “rather shy” Iain as well as the Manyara elephants, and wrote a substantial part of Among the Elephants. Iain loved the elephants, had learned to walk with confidence just feet away as he observed and mapped their intricate family dynamics, and writes well – but Oria’s narrative is more personalised, lyrical at times. More than researching animals, she became animal: “Our senses became so alert that like hunters, we could smell and track elephants long before we saw or heard them. ... Living amongst animals one becomes more like them. ... Distances had no limits, time no meaning ... I knew by the colour of the trees, the bushes and the flowers, which month it was.” After she gave birth to their daughter Saba, it was the matriarchal mores of the elephants to which she turned for maternal direction, for their “old fashioned virtues: loyalty, protection and affection”; stability, loving communication, females taking on “male” roles. It was often heart-breaking, rough, dangerous, this wild life, but they often felt themselves to have entered a “continuum” of “completeness and serenity” with the elephants. This sense of communality surfaces repeatedly amongst the women researchers.
Among the Elephants mentions other researchers only in passing (indeed, they are all rather reticent about each other – professional courtesy, I suppose), but includes Daphne Sheldrick and Sylvia Sikes, who would go on to write A Natural History of the Elephant (1971). Inspired by the Douglas-Hamiltons, with whom she worked in the late 1960s, on the almost-neighbouring park of Amboseli, Cynthia Moss had set up another elephant research centre under the auspices of the African Wildlife Trust. She set about tracking the infinitely complex and fascinating family dynamics of the Amboseli elephants, writing four books and several films, notably centred on an elephant dubbed Echo. Echo became world-famous, probably doing more for the public’s understanding of elephants than any other pachyderm personality.
Moss followed Iain’s scientific methods, and eschewed the idea of a two-way friendship with the elephants she observed; she was not a participant; though she cared profoundly about their preservation, they did not realise it. Yet, like a novelist, she opens her book Elephant Memories (1998) with an account of elephant living that, while behaviourally precise and authentic, is not what she is observing; it is ‘imagined’. And when a matriarch she has been following for a decade or more is unnecessarily shot, or culling is mooted for the Amboseli elephants she has come to know in their every gesture, you can feel the heartstrings break beneath the measured surface of the prose:
I feel sick when I think of a team of marksmen, skinners and butchers moving into Amboseli and slaughtering whole families along with all their knowledge, their traditions and their memories. ... Elephants are not so many rodents to be exterminated; they deserve something better than that and I am not afraid to say that ethics and morality should be essential considerations in our decisions for their future.
Moss’s work has continued through many trying times – opposition, drought, poaching – for forty years. Joining her from time to time was a young biology major, like Moss educated at Smith College – Joyce Poole. Contrary to expectations that women would study matriarchal structures, Moss directed Poole to study the bulls – and discovered lots of fascinating things about musth behaviour and other boytjie things. The experiences were formative for Poole, who had grown up partly in Kenya and penned a deeply personal memoir significantly titled Coming of Age with Elephants (1996).
Poole found herself taking a keen interest in the investigations of another American woman, Katy Payne. Payne, along with her then husband Roger Payne, had been working on recording infrasonic (below human hearing-range) whale song. Now Katy was adapting the technology to record similarly inaudible communications between elephants. Silent Thunder, she called it in her 1998 book of that title. This book, like most of the other women’s, is written like a novel, full of conversations with fascinating people, places, societies, as well as accessibly showing that elephants do communicate infrasonically across great distances. Still, Payne remained humbled before the deep mysteries that remained; she compares scientists to fishermen, pulling up bits almost by chance from beneath swirling and beautiful but opaque surfaces, and often strangely “driven by unconscious motivation”. And science could not entirely shield her from emotional attachments to her subjects: “The women do not show the same composure as the men ... grieving has so exhausted them.” She had to cope with the aftermath of culling in Zimbabwe’s Sengwa reserve, where she worked with Rowan Martin. Many of the elephants she had tracked and accompanied for months had been killed. She tries to devote her science to the memory of those lives cut short, quoting the World War One poet Wilfred Owen: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/ Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” That devotion “started as a desire for them to have passing-bells, and for myself to ring them in the face of the grand indifference.”
Does the evident complexity of elephant communication, albeit untranslatable, amount to a “culture”? Canadian novelist Barbara Gowdy thought it a distinct possibility and, drawing on Poole and Payne’s work, wrote The White Bone (1998), a scintillating story of the world from within an imagined elephant consciousness – a kind of Watership Down for pachyderms. As for Zimbabwe, another woman, Australian Sharon Pincott, has been pursuing a lonely, ultimately rather despairing crusade on behalf of the so-called Presidential Herd of elephants of Matetsi in western Zimbabwe, recounting the story in a series of books including In an Elephant's Rumble (2004) and the Elephants and I (2009).
Building on Payne’s work, yet another American scientist, Caitlin O’Connell, began discovering, through some nifty experiments with wild Namibian and some captive elephants, yet another dimension – that in addition to airborne infrasonics, elephants can communicate quite nuanced messages through ground vibrations, picked up through the soles of those great padded feet. O’Connell, like her predecessors, was publishing articles in hardcore scientific journals, but her account for the general reader, The Elephants’ Secret Sense (2007), is I think the best-written of all of these narratives. She has since followed up with Elephant Don – the ‘biography’ of a particular individual she tracked, observed, understood. Through all the behavioural studies, this shines through – that every elephant has distinct and complex personality, and belongs – where we humans have not destroyed it – to a society that shows every sign of being a full, rich culture.
It would be too easy to stereotype these and the many other women studying and loving elephants as ‘emotional’ beings, and men as objective and detached. It would also be inaccurate to call them feminist, though some have deployed elephantine matriarchal structures in support of feminist agendas. Nor is it true that they care only for the animals to the exclusion of people, especially African people: one thing that links all these accounts is the awareness that human and elephant (and all other animal) cultures have co-evolved, have been and remain intricately intertwined, and are equally vital to the ecological and psychic health of our shared planet.
This is the burden of ecologist and psychologist Gaye Bradshaw’s brilliant book, Elephants at the Edge (2009). Like many of the field researchers, Bradshaw “felt wedged between worlds and struggled to bridge the chasm between the collectivity of science and [the] personal nature of suffering – between my role as objective scientist and the subjective experience of a living, feeling, sentient member of the animal world.” Bradshaw’s subtitle is “What animals teach us about humanity”, but she doesn’t romanticise this relationship. Like much of humanity, she writes, elephant society is
riddled with violence, has had ethnic ... strife, has lost elders and the coherence of traditions, and suffers with no hope of restitution. Elephant society is also embedded in human cultures struggling with similar challenges and histories ... They and humans are asked to re-create culture, to redefine meaning in new contexts ... We are able to harness the volumes of scientific knowledge with the wisdom of indigenes, elephants and other animals to help re-create human culture. Once the shock of trauma sinks in, the possibility for renewal begins. ...
The elephants have called. It is time that we join them.
Dan Wylie’s Elephant is available from Reaktion Books; and his new study, Death and Compassion: The elephant in southern African literature, is due from Wits University Press in July.