Daphne Sheldrick (1934-2018) Tembo mama


Daphne Sheldrick, DBE, just left us at the age of 83. She was the “mother of elephants” (Tembo mama in Swahili). She founded the “Orphanage” near Nairobi where orphaned elephants (due to poaching) are raised, cared for and many later returned to the bush.

In 1967, (I know, fifty years ago and change. Don’t remind me!) we were transferred from Holland back to Africa, more precisely Kenya. A relief, weather-wise and in many other aspects. (Back to magic). In the summer before we moved I bought the book above to learn about our future new home. “Nos amis dans la brousse” (Our friends in the bush) was translated from Daphne Sheldrick’s “The orphans of Tsavo”.


Samson drinking from the tap he had opened

Daphne Sheldrick was born in Kenya in 1934. One of many “wazungu” (white people) born and bred in Kenya. She married David Sheldrick  in the mid fifties. David Sheldrick, born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1919 (Servants of the Empire, old chap) was Chief warden of Tsavo national park, one of the largest parks in Kenya. I find it fair to say that the Shedricks – along with a handful of others – invented wildlife preservation. While David fought the poachers with his armed to the teeth park wardens, Daphne “collected” the orphans, baby elephants, baby rhinos, what have you.


David Sheldrick with Baby Samson

Daphne Sheldrick is credited with inventing the correct milk formula to effectively feed baby elephants and rhinos. Just as Joy Adamson (Born free) invented the right formula for lion cubs. Cow milk doesn’t quite cut it.


Daphne Sheldrick at the watering point in Tsavo. C.1965-67.

Not only did the Sheldricks save elephants, they also kept rhinos, mongoose, birds, warthogs. Und so weiter. The English, as a people, have a unique relationship with animals. Not just horses and dogs. Anything. Think Gerald Durrell (My family and other animals) or Gavin Maxwell and otters in Ring of bright waters. Soon the Sheldrick’s house in Tsavo was full of animals inside and out.


Baby Rufus climbing the stairs of the verandah.


Fatuma drinking from the pond


Gregory (the bird) on Jill’s head. (Sheldrick’s daughter)

As I looked over the photos in that old book to compose this post, I realized once more how “peculiar” the life of Wazungu watoto (white kids) in Africa was. Including mine and my sister’s. There was no barrier between fiction and reality. When I closed “The jungle book”, I could be chased by a monkey in the garden, or sidestep to avoid a snake, or go swim in the sea with dolphins at a distance. Not only was there no barrier between the book and Life, we lived inside the book:


Conakry, West Africa, c.1960-61. At another elephant orphanage. I’ve already posted that photo. L. to r. Little sister (never too keen on elephants), my mother and yours truly. But back to Tsavo and the Sheldricks:


Jill with Samson, the (baby) elephant and pickle, the mongoose.


Angela with Rufus the rhino.

I‘ve always wondered whether I would have let my daughters so close to those huge “babies”. Another family, the Douglas-Hamiltons. world specialists of elephants in the wild, also raised their daughter, Saba, with elephants. And as far as Jill and Angela, I understand they are fine and pursuing their parents’ work.


Daphne Sheldrick, in a fashionable early sixties dress and barefoot, leads a young zebra away from the neighbours’ garden.

(All pictures except my own above come from the book: Nos amis dans la brousse, by Daphne Sheldrick, published by Stock, 1967)

Tembo mama? I kinda made that up, but it is grammatically correct as far as my kitchen swahili goes and it does describe Daphne Sheldrick’s work well. The mother of elephants. Asante sana Tembo mama. Thank you elephant mother. Kwaheri sassa. Good bye now.



71 thoughts on “Daphne Sheldrick (1934-2018) Tembo mama

  1. Fantastic, Brieuc ! “To be in the book” is the most inspiring expression I did hear today ! Possibly everyone has his or her own book … but few have the “Jungle Book” as theirs ! I’ll look for Daphne Sheldrick’s book ! Many thanks, Brieuc.

    • Yes, you’re right. Hadn’t thought of that. Possibly many people have their own book. A very nice stepping thought to consider. Exemple: je lisais Bob Morane. Tambours de guerre. Les coupeurs de tête. Je refermais le bouquin et les tambours du village d’à côté résonnaient. (Pour une fête ou une autre)
      A +

  2. I’d say African elephants and wildlife need a bevy of Tembo mamas in these days. What a lovely look at your childhood life. Thank you so much. I’ve dreamed of living in Africa since I was small. It was one of the places my mother wanted to go and we shared pictures in the National Geographic magazines that arrived each month.

  3. We need more people like these in the world, and we have to stop driving all the other animals in the world to extinction. Once they are all gone will we be far behind? Hugs

      • And as they go we go. It is a huge shame. Damn it, we are the big brain animal, can we not use it for more than unlimited sex and killing off everything else. Heck sometimes we use it to kill ourselves. We were given an incredible gift with this planet, the only one we know so far with plentiful life. What will it take to get humans to see our connection to it? Sorry just had oral surgery and I am a bit raw with my feelings tonight. By the way may have found what was making me so tired. I had a huge infection under some of my teeth. The teeth did not hurt but it was eating them and my jaw. As you know I have trouble with bone loss anyway. So that and anemia is what they think may have made me so fatigued. Thankfully I followed your advice and did not let that endo doctor keep me waiting for another 6 months to do more comparative blood tests.on my thyroid. I did what you suggested and took it back to my primary. They couldn’t save one tooth, but I have had two bone grafts and they think they can save the others. It is looking better. They think they caught in time for me to keep most of my teeth. Thanks again. Hugs

      • Not sure about the big brain animal. I think there is some very faulty wiring.
        Now, now! That is great news! (I have many a dentist in my in-laws, so they would understand perfectly). A tooth infection can be extremely serious. And it well could account for your fatigue and anemia. Though the infection should have shown in the blood analysis. Well, that is fantastic news, my friend. Hug back.

    • Thank you Mia. I was saddened by her passing. beyond elephants she was part of my childhood, although we never met her or her husband while we were in Kenya. (Another regret) 🙂 She was a fine woman and did good in the world.

      • You’re welcome, Brian. Interesting the things that we hold dear, and these things and their memories are a big part of our lives. I can certainly see why she was a part of your childhood, what a remarkable woman. Please have a terrific evening. 🙂

      • Well, a remote part. Unfortunately we never met her. Don’t know why. I think she spent most of her time in Tsavo, while my parents attended cocktail parties in Nairobi. But we/i have gone many times to Tsavo national park. A wonderful place. Still.
        Bon week-end.

  4. Wonderful post Brian! I grew up with the Durrell and Maxwell books (The Ring of Bright Water was a Favourite) and also Joy Adamson’s, so I’m really surprised not to have heard of the Sheldricks. We need more and more of these adventurous families to try to undo and mitigate the terrible cruelty and mess we are making of the natural world.

  5. People with much love to offer, people with much hate to spread. In between, everybody else that understand little to nothing of the two extremes. That’s the human society.
    Daphne belonged to first category and the world needs many more of her kind in order to survive.
    Good bye, Daphne…

  6. Pingback: Mother of Elephants passes… | huggers.ca

  7. its a walk in time for me here Equinoxio.
    You well describe the elephants better than me who have seen them through fences and glasses.the photos are real and original , i dont still believe you mzungus can tame the game while i AFRICAN try each day to get away from the country-side.
    awesome article .

    • Haha! I have sometimes thought that the wazungu’s Africa is very different form the Africans’ Africa. 🙂 Just different perspectives. Thank you for your comments.
      Kwaheri sassa

  8. “Not only was there no barrier between the book and Life, we lived inside the book:” How wonderful! I am envious of your magical childhood Brian 🙂 A fine tribute to Daphne Sheldrick and to all the Wazungus of Africa and their immeasurable legacies.

  9. Another lovely post that made me smile and freed my imagination. Living in the Jungle Book was always a dream of mine (still is, except now I’m afraid of poisonous insects and bad drinking water – how boring to be a grown-up!) …Anyway, I love you and your sister’s fancy shoes in the elephant photo! Old photos are the best, and these African ones are hard to compete with! (Thanks for the reading tips, too!)

    • Most welcome. Glad you liked it. (I still use white socks sometimes) Looking back, we wer lucky as kids. No snake bites. No frighful tropical disease which abound. Except for a few bouts of malaria. And I did take my daughters to Kenya when they were 3 and 5. Lovely. 🙂

  10. A fascinating read and beautiful post. The Sheldrick’s passion for saving elephants is an inspiration. I love the images of you and your family, especially, and those from the book.

  11. most excellent Brian and your childhood is one you should be so very proud of, most have never seen a wild animal beyond a zoo but here you regal us with your images and tales….always an amazing thing visiting you here ❤

    • Thank you Kim. Glad to share. Rather than “proud” (didn’t do much myself as a kid, just tagged along) I am grateful. I saw the last of another world. 🙂
      Have a nice week my friend.

    • Yes she was.
      And you are right about my childhood. It gave me all the distance to the frantic search for luxury most fall into. I don’t need a yacht. We had “one”. I don’t need to work like a maniac to buy a house on the sea. Already had one. Etc. I think most expat brats have this distance to the material. (Maybe?)

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