A Message from Daphne Sheldrick
From her Foreword to The Elephant Letters: The Story of Billy and Kani (2014, Awakeling Press), by Gay Bradshaw, PhD, PhD.
Every child that reads the very moving story of little Billy and Kani will be able to relate to the fact that “Elephants are just like us,” which is something that Dr. Gay Bradshaw has publicly stated. To this I would add “in fact, better than us,” for they can teach us humans a great deal about caring and nurturing, and also about forgiveness.
It is important to understand that at any age an elephant child duplicates a human child in terms of age. They develop at the same pace as us, (although during their three years of milk-dependent infancy they are much more “together” than a human child of that age); they reach puberty and adulthood at the same age as us, and they have been endowed with the same expected lifespan. Sadly though, in this day and age, few are afforded the privilege of dying of old age, as do most humans, due to the demand for their ivory teeth in Far Eastern Nations, particularly in China.
In childhood they can be mischievous just like human children, playing deliberate pranks on one another. They have likes and dislikes amongst their peers, just like us, forming strong bonds of friendship, just like human children, with an even more enduring sense of “family” than ourselves.
Rearing their orphaned babies into adulthood has provided us with a unique insight into the intelligence of these wonderful and compassionate animals, who have been endowed with the best human traits and few of the bad. In their fragile infancy, we have healed their heartache as well as their wounds, handling them only with tenderness and kindness, as would their elephant family. This has brought those of us who are privileged to represent their human surrogate family rich rewards in terms of a unique understanding of the way elephants feel and think, how they behave towards one another, and how they live in harmony with one another, respecting rank and age. I have regarded it as my duty to bear witness to the very human emotional characteristics of elephants, to their astonishing sense of responsibility, even in infancy, to their amazing powers of communication, and to their mysterious perception, which borders on magic and defies human logic.
Unlike us, elephants are born with an imprinted genetic memory of aspects important to survival and of how to fulfill their function within Nature. Elephants “never forget,” so their forgiveness of the terrible injustices we humans have done to their kind – robbing them of their loved ones simply for a tooth – is particularly touching. Those of us who know them intimately cannot escape a sense of deep shame for such wicked injustice.
As a scientist and psychologist Gay Bradshaw’s insight into the elephant psyche has been an important milestone within the scientific world to counter the myth that precludes “anthropomorphism.” To understand an elephant, one must be “anthropomorphic,” because elephants are emotionally identical to ourselves. They grieve and mourn the loss of a loved one just as deeply as do we, and their capacity for love is humbling.
It has been a wondrous experience to watch over 140 orphaned infant African elephants grow day by day, to understand their mind and their mood, and ultimately to be able to experience the greatest reward of all, the privilege of being shown an ex orphan’s wild-born baby and, as part of the “family,” allowed access to it as it shelters beneath its Mother. To be able to walk within an elephant herd when an Ex Orphan Mother brings back its newborn baby, surrounded by Elephant Carers, simply to proudly show a human is surely a reward that cannot be matched. It is a “thank you” for the years of nurturing and care involved in getting the Mother and the Carers to that point.
All our orphans are given the freedom of choice to return to where they rightly belong as and when they feel ready to do so, for it is their birthright to be able to live amongst their wild kin in an area that can offer such great wanderers the space they need for a quality of life in wild terms. The Call of the Wild is very strong, and respecting that need is the greatest gift any human can give an Elephant – that along with protection and understanding, and the enduring respect and love of which this iconic species is worthy. The Elephant Letters will bring this important message to children around the world.
Foreword by Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, DBS, MBE, MBS, DVMS, Chairperson, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust