Monday, January 24, 2011

On Elephants and Relatives

For nearly sixty years, Dame Daphne Sheldrick has been caring for orphaned wildlife of Kenya, raising everything from dik-diks to rhinoceroses. What she is most known for, however, is raising orphaned elephants. Through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, she and her devoted staff care for dozens of young elephants with the goal of reintroducing them to the wild. The Trust runs several camps in Kenya (the Naibori Nursery, Ithumba Unit, and Voi Unit), which can be visited by well wishers when touring the country. She has become quite famous and was recently featured on NBC News and the Today Show. Because many people want to follow the orphaned elephants' progress, she writes monthly letters that can be received through email.

Bonnie is a sponsor and receives the emails, which she passes on to me. These letters from Dame Daphne remind me of the letters that I used to get from my grandmother. My grandmother had eight siblings, and my grandfather had four siblings, and I think they all had children. Three of my great aunts lived in or near Big Lake, Texas when I was a boy and more relatives were in San Angelo, Ozona, Alpine, Ft. Davis, Lubbock, Midland, and Austin. She was constantly getting cards and letters from the relatives, as well as visits. When I left for college and jobs in other states, Grandmother sent letters that reported on the lives of my great uncles, great aunts, and cousins to many degrees. I had tremendous trouble keeping them all straight.

Dame Daphne's letters are longer and include even more names on average than those I received from my Grandmother. She and her organization are probably not taking care of more elephants than I have cousins, but she tells us more about them. Most letters start (unfortunately) with a story about an elephant rescue. Then we learn who is at each camp, who is comforting younger elephants, who is leading the daily walks, and who's joined the wild herds of their own accord. We also learn who's playing with whom. I think the elephants are closer and have more fun together than my relatives ever did (at least at the cousins level).

Like any good family, there are photos to see. Bonnie often prints some with the monthly letters. I get to see the latest shots of Zurura (above), Bonnie's elephant, who has grown into a mischievous and rowdy boy who likes pushing games but also is a devoted to his friends. He was a constant companion to a dying elephant last year.

You have to love elephants when you read Dame Daphne's letters. Learn more at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust website.

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