Wed Jun 22, 2011 3:21 am (PDT)
The true heart of the wild
http://www.independ ent.co.uk/ environment/ nature/the- true-heart-
A new film explores just how deep
animal emotions can run -- especially in those reared by humans. Anthea
Gerrie meets its two star conservationists
*Tuesday, 21 June 2011*
The milk of human kindness is as crucial as substitute mothers' milk to
the survival of orphaned wildlife, say two female conservationists who have
given hundreds of endangered animals a second chance to live and spawn a new
population in the wild.
The animals need surrogate parents to help
heal their grief at losing their
mothers; unless they can rebuild trust
and attachment they may die of a
broken heart. Orphans old enough to
survive in the wild may become
psychopathic if deprived of adult role
models, like delinquent teenagers
from broken homes. This is the view of
Dame Daphne Sheldrick and Dr Birute
Mary Galdikas, who have played
surrogate mother to hundreds of orphaned
elephants and orangutans
respectively. They believe their charges share with
humans a depth of
emotion that has gone unacknowledged.
"Through studying elephants
every minute of every day from infancy to
adulthood, I have learned about
their interior lives," says Dame Sheldrick,
the first person to
successfully raise an orphaned elephant from birth.
"I've discovered they
have the capacity to feel pain, sadness and happiness,
to have fun and to
experience fear. Everything that happens to humans is replicated in
Dame Sheldrick was in London promoting a new film whose
presentation of the love orphaned animals feel for their
human keepers is backed up by hard science.
Drew Fellman, who wrote
and produced the 3D documentary Born To Be Wild,
says: "I chose
orangutans and elephants not just because they're adorable,
they have an emotional sophistication which mimics human
Sheldrick says the film shows the scientific world has been
impose an "anthropomorphic block -- the idea that animals are not as
intelligent as us, are inferior to us, can't think, can't be happy and sad
"What this film shows is that these species have very human
grieve and mourn their dead as deeply as we do and have a
brain which is
superior to ours in many ways".
One of the most
startling aspects of the elephant brain, the film reveals,
is an ability
to communicate via infrasound, which is inaudible to the human
ear and a
key factor in returning rehabilitated orphans into the wild.
elephants who have passed through the nursery make an arrangement to
the new little ones at a certain point in the bush, which is unknown to
the humans," Dame Sheldrick says. "The keepers simply follow the elephants
there when they get the signal. They are taken first for a night out by
young bull elephants -- like a sleepover.
"And because they are the
wimpiest species, fearful even of a rabbit, if
they find it too scary,
the matriarch will instruct the bulls to return the
youngster to the
It is absolutely true that elephants never forget, she
says. "We have had
elephants who have babies in the wild and return to
show their babies to the
human family who reared them," she says. "They
have such trust in us that if
they suffer hurt they will drag themselves
back -- like Solango, who came
with a broken leg, accompanied by another
ex-orphan to protect him, and
allowed the keepers to take care of him,
like putting himself in hospital.
"We have had orphans return years
after being released, with arrows in them
and snares around their legs;
they will make their way back to the stockades
so their human family can
help them -- even when their hurt has been
inflicted by other humans."
As 19,000 elephants are lost every year to poachers and the erosion of
habitat, saving every orphan possible is vital. While the females
carers, the males attach themselves to older bulls to learn the
resolving conflict without a fight to the death. "Like boys who
fraternise with other males, they develop a hero worship on the
strongest bulls," Dame Sheldrick says.
high-ranking bulls are lost and unable to pass on rules and a
responsibility, deviant behaviour can develop. "You see in
elephant societies the same kinds of behaviour you see in human
elephant rapes, for example, by younger bulls behaving badly," she
On the happier side, elephants have an astonishingly sophisticated
life. "They use infrasound to keep in touch like we use phone and
We know of one elephant in the north who travels 600 miles to the
streaking through areas of human habitation every single year, just
see friends who live there. An elephant's friend, which includes humans
who cared for it, is a friend for life."
Orangutans do not share this
herd mentality, but have a maternal bond that
is just as strong. "They
are solitary animals, but they stay with their
mothers until they are
eight-years old," Fellman says. "While the baby
elephant is tended by the
entire herd, the orangutan is only tended by its
mother; it is the most
intense bond in the animal kingdom.
"The orangutans raised by Birute
don't grow up quite like wild ones, because
their circle is much bigger,
but their carers and the orangutan playmates
they learn from can take at
least some of the place of their mothers.
"It's far from an ideal
situation. I wanted to show how much pressure
orangutans are under
because their habitat is being destroyed; humans are
merely doing what
they can to save the species." What the Imax film, which
opened this week
at the BFI cinema and will also play at London 's Science
not show is the tragic outcome for many orphans.
Some are too weak
and emaciated to survive or die of a broken heart at the
trauma of losing
their mothers. "It's like fairy tales, which are dark
stories at heart,"
"Elephants and orangutans are cute and accessible, but
they have tragedy in
their lives and some of its is just too graphic to
show. We are not shying
away from it, but a lot of wildlife films are
gloom and doom and we are
trying to show the joy of these animals whose
second chance of life is a
beacon of hope."
Having lost 96 orphans
as well as raising 130 to adulthood has almost been
more than Dame
Sheldrick can bear. She says the work she started 50 years
foisted on her as the warden's wife at Kenya 's Tsavo National Park .
"They need milk for three years and it took so long to get the formula
right. That formula included learning the husbandry as well as how to enrich
milk in a way which would not kill them -- the babies needed someone to be
with them day and night. And it had to be a family rather than one person,
as I learned from the elephant who died of a broken heart when I left her to
attend to my daughter's wedding in Nairobi .
"I gave someone else my
dress to wear while looking after her -- but the
scent didn't fool her. I
had to develop a family of keepers who know all the
elephants and rotate
between the nursery in Nairobi and the rehabilitation
stations in Tsavo."
At 77, the grandmother sometimes wishes she had not been saddled with
such a daunting task. "This is not a bunny-hugging project -- it's very
says. "When a new elephant comes in we don't jump for joy,
because it means
at least 14 years of hard work and possibly heartbreak.
"And it takes a lot of courage. People ask how I can go on doing this
after weeping buckets over the ones we have loved and lost, but we
keep on for the sake of the ones who need us.
lesson the elephants have taught me -- grieve and mourn deeply the
who have gone, but concentrate on trying to save the others.
had my life again and someone else would do the elephant slot, I would
rather not have to do it. However, when you've given an animal life and
they've grown to enjoy a normal happy life in the wild and had children of
their own they bring back to show you, that's the cherry on the top."
*'Born To Be Wild' 3D is showing at London 's BFI IMAX and
the Science Museum
Imax from 2 July *
*Born free: famous
conservationists who've given animals a second chance*
A protege of paleontologist Louis Leakey, she has spent
nearly 40 years
studying, rescuing and rehabilitating orangutans in
*Jane Goodall *
The world's foremost chimpanzee
expert has studied the animals for 45 years
in Tanzania , observing the
animals' capacity for emotion.
third member of the group of female ape conservationists known as
"Leakey's Angels" studied gorillas for 18 years in Rwanda prior to her
murder in 1985.
*George and Joy Adamson *
Free couple raised orphaned lion cubs and rehabilitated other big
Africa . They were murdered, separately, in the 1980s.