Elephant Emotions by Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Why is it that most people feel such empathy for elephants, even if they have never had close contact with them? Is it because of their size, their quaint characteristics, or the fact that they are so incredibly endearing as babies, tripping over little wobbly trunks that seem to serve no useful purpose other than get in the way? Or is it, perhaps, because elephants are “human” animals in terms of emotion, and in many other ways as well, encompassed by an invisible and mystical aura that reaches deep into the human soul in a mysterious way that defies human logic.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

I can vouch for that, for I have worked intimately with elephants for 55 years. My team and I have hand-reared over 150 orphaned elephant babies to date, some from the day they were born. I have known them intimately through infancy and childhood into their teenage years and even well beyond. For like us humans, some elephants like to stay in touch with those they love.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Every elephant we rear is returned back where it rightly belongs to lead a normal elephant life back amongst its own kind, to cover vast distances in enormous elephant strides, enjoying the companionship of others, fulfilling all the tasks in life elephants were designed to do such as modifying habitats to trigger wildlife’s cyclic and eternal rhythms between grasslands and scrublands essential to the long-term survival of grazing species as well as browsers.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

During my long association with the orphaned elephants, many have chosen to remain in touch with the human family that replaced their lost elephant family and whom they love as deeply as their elephant peers. Many have brought their wild-born babies to share them and their joy with their human family, and many have returned to seek the help of their human family when wounded or sick. All our orphaned elephants return to a normal elephant life in the Tsavo National Park in Kenya, which is a protected area the size of Michigan State, and as such can offer an elephant the quality of life it deserves.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Whilst it has not always been so, it is now accepted scientifically that elephants share with us many human traits. For instance they have the same span of life, (three score years and ten, all being well) and that they develop at a parallel pace so that at any given age a baby elephant duplicates a human of the same age. Their brain is four times the size of ours and convoluted, indicating that elephants can reason and think. It has also been proven that the part of an elephant brain responsible for memory is far more sophisticated than that of a human.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

They share with us a strong sense of family and they also share with us a deep sense of death. I know that they grieve and they mourn, just as we do at the loss of a loved one and that they shed tears and suffer depression. They have a sense of compassion that projects beyond their own kind and can extend to other species in distress. They help one another in adversity, miss absent loved ones, and when you know them really well, you can see that they even smile when having fun and are happy.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Each elephant is a unique individual, just as are we, and each has its own unique personality. They can be happy or sad, placid by nature or more volatile. They can even be playfully mischievous, delighting in playing harmless pranks on other members of the family or herd. However, they are taught discipline from a very young age by their senior matriarchs. They know envy and jealousy, can throw tantrums and harbour grudges about a perceived injustice, just like human children.   And just like human children, they can be competitive for rank and status amongst their peers.   This applies to both males and females, for elephant society is complex, where female family units remain united for life, led by the oldest female of the group who is known as the Matriarch.   Young bulls remain with the female family until puberty, but then prefer the company of other bulls so that they can spar with one another in tests of strength and dominance, often attaching themselves to high ranking and revered adult role models, whom they emulate, and learn from.   However, they will always still keep in touch with their female family and visit them from time to time, but they are the scouts of elephant society, who must be more adventurous and seek out safe havens for their female loved ones. They prefer a more independent existence, for boys will be boys. That said, bull elephants are also very caring of the young.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley


Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Elephants are essentially peaceful and peace-loving animals despite their undisputed strength and enormous size. They are also essentially very fearful animals that are terrified of the unknown.   Like human children they are more fearful of the dark, for like us they have limited night vision.    But they have been endowed with many additional attributes that we humans lack such as the ability to communicate over distance using low range sound hidden to human ears.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Unlike us and other primates who have to learn everything the hard way, elephants are born primed with knowledge vital to survival, which is imparted to their brain in their mother’s womb.   Knowledge about what to eat and what not to eat, subservient gestures about how to behave when confronted with an older, stronger stranger in order to avoid conflict and so on. Their sense of scent, like their hearing, is incredibly sophisticated. Trunk to the ground, they can follow a scent trail unerringly and at a run. They can decipher chemical, hormonal messages, and they have a mysterious perception that defies all human logic, able to foresee important events ahead of time.    We have witnessed this time and time again amongst our orphaned elephants.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

I have been privileged to live amongst elephants (and other animals too) all my life, observing them in a wild, and hand-rearing their orphaned young. But it has been the rearing of the infant milk dependent babies that has given me an in depth insight into the elephant psyche. Hand in hand with the good times, have come heartbreaks in abundance, but each elephant life saved has rewarded us richly with untold satisfaction. When rearing long-lived animals such as elephants, one must dig deep from inner reserves to find “staying power,” for it is a long-term assignment parallel to raising a human child. It took me 28 long years to perfect the milk formula and complicated husbandry vital to success in terms of rearing the newborn elephants, and in the process each one that died shredded my heart.

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Photograph by Robert Carr-Hartley

Animals are indeed more ancient, more complex, and in many ways more sophisticated than man.   In terms of Nature they are truly more perfect because they remain within the ordered scheme of Nature and live as Nature intended. They are different to us, honed by natural selection over millennia so they should not be patronised, but rather respected and revered. And of all the animals, perhaps the most respected and revered should be the Elephant, for not only is it the largest land mammal on earth, but also the most emotionally human.



  1. Beautiful and informative article. Thank you.

  2. This is so beautiful is it avaklable to purchase

  3. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, what a wonderful life, you have done amazing work and not only have you saved many elephants you have taught so many humans to love and respect them, still a long way to go with poachers, but I feel many people especially in Asian countries need to be educated, I have been to your orphanage one of the best days of my life, how I wish I could be there every day, you are a incredible woman surrounded by love, family, keepers and elephants, I envy you and admire you greatly. you are my heroine.

  4. Beautiful written and beautiful photos. You are such a remarkable woman mrs Daphne. Thank you and your staff so much for being there for these very special animals.

    Kind regards from the Netherlands,
    Marjolein Kisjes

  5. Beautifully written & beautiful pictures. Dame Daphne is truly inspirational with a wealth of knowledge and a heart as big as the universe. Thank you.

  6. Beautifully written as always. Thank you for sharing your insight with is!

  7. These are the most beautiful animals on earth and I am in awe of their strength and tenderness. Your work in Kenya warms my heart and I have recently fostered three orphans from your website. I would love to visit the preserve some day.

  8. Thank you for this. It’s beautiful.

  9. thank you so much for the article. it was interesting and I know that as much as I admire and love the elephant, I don’t come close to what you feel. thank you for all you’ve done for them.

  10. How could I become part of what your doing?

    • Like yourself Gregg, I want to make a bigger impact for this Trust but living so far away and not very financially able I donate what I can through the gift shop online for the DSWT.
      I also started a Facebook page Elephants
      which I post links from the DSWT to share their news in hopes that many will join my page and be informed of the great efforts these wonderful people at the Trust are living and acting out on behalf of Africa’s wildlife.
      Even the smallest efforts are better than sitting idle.

      • Many of us cannot contribute a lot in the way of money, but if we all, and I mean all of us who care about elephants (and rhinos), would join in writing to all our Congressmen and to the President on a once a week basis about stopping the ivory trade we could have more impact than we will ever have with a few bucks in the mail, although that is a good idea too…

    • You can also help with fostering elephants:


  11. I have always loved elephants since childhood. I got to touch my first baby elephant at the ripe age of five. I’ll never forget the experience. A few years ago I purchased the book, “the art of being an ELEPHANT”. Thank you for your wonderful work you do to save and raise these beautiful babies. I would like to know if you have a book published with your story and these wonderful pictures. I am now 60 and I still sketch these beautiful animals.

  12. Thanks for sharing your beautiful life with Elephants and other animals!
    Thank´s for this informative article.
    Love the amazing photos.
    I will keep on fostering one Elephant/month.
    You and the keepers are my heroes!

  13. Funny thing is I have always loved horses which r animals of great beauty so I don’t know why elephants strike a cord deep in my soul… Well said, Dr. Dame Daåhne :-) wooooonderful work :-) thank u and God bless all v u

  14. After visiting the DSWT at the start of this year 2013 I have developed a great admiration for all who effort to save and rear the orphaned and injured. What an amazing life you live Dame Daphne and all who give of their lives with support. Since returning to Canada I have continued to read updates and support the Trust as I am financially able. I am understanding elephants more now than I ever have and a deep passion to support your life’s work is growing in my heart.
    Bless you all at the DSWT and all involved for the cause of protecting and defending Elephant’s rights!

  15. It is so endaring to see you beautiful Souls. Yes, animals are Soul too.
    ai have always have an affinity for elephants because they seem so much like us. Actually most creatures are. Hope you have an animal communicator nearby to collect and write down their stories.
    Love in Spirit Gunvi

  16. What is it about elephants, they are so glorious, thank you…

  17. I was so thrilled to have the experience in 2007 with my sister. Plus is was a kjoy to be able to get a signed copy of her newest book!
    A fabulous lady tocuhing elephants and humans!

  18. That is lovely. I admire Dame Daphne so much for what she (nand her team ) have done for elephants. I love visiting the orphanage and my baby when I can.

  19. Elephants are so endearing. Very emotional, extremley loving.
    Thank you for the great article and fabulous photos.

  20. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has taught me a lot about Elephants. I am a big fan to Elephants and wildlife at large. Thank you a lot.

  21. I’ve spent a lifetime with a close connection to elephants. I wrote a song “All For The Ivory” about the very sad ivory poaching. Your work is so valuable & appreciated. I enjoyed your essay very much & I agree with everything you said. Thank you.

  22. Beautiful, You are a total hero to me and you inspire me beyond words to make a difference too, I hope someday to meet you Daphne.

  23. Dame Daphne, you have enriched my life with sharing yours and giving me knowledge and insight in the wonderful world of the gentle giants. Ever since Mr. and Mrs. Margolis of Toronto, Canada have educated and encouraged us last fall to foster and be part of your extended family, we are passing the word and your wisdom! Please let me know if and how I can adopt another baby elephant

    • Hi Trudy,

      Very sorry for the late response. I will forward your message to Daphne. Many thanks for your support and kind words. You can find out more about fostering here: http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/asp/fostering.asp . I will show your message to Daphne!


  24. This is so beautiful and enlightening to read. Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick is my heroine for elephants. What an inspirational lady and her team. Have had the privilege of meeting Dame Daphne in Nairobi Orphanage many times. Just wonderful. Long may the orphans prosper and hopefully the ivory trade will cease soon, although I know that this is a very slow process. Thank you for the DSWT for everything. I am spreading the word of your work.

  25. Dear Dame Daphne,

    Thank you for a beautiful piece. You inspire us all with your wisdom and love.
    I will continue to adopt the baby elephants and to weep for the horrors perpetrated against these wonderful animals because of our species’ ignorance, greed and stupidity.
    It is only people like you that make life tolerable on this trampled and abused planet of ours.

  26. I am truly inspired by the work that you do. I long for the day that the senseless poaching of these magnificent creatures arrives and they can finally live in peace

  27. I cannot express how much I love these wonderful creatures. It’s a bond I’ve only felt for my Havanese, Lucca. How I admire and respect the work you and your staff have done. I only wish that some day I manage to save enough money to visit your orphanage. I only had 3 items on my list when I was young on what I wanted to accomplish in my life. Although meaningless to most for I was never a high achiever, I wanted a baby, go to Italy and go to Africa and visit the majestic and beloved Elephants in their land. I’ve managed to accomplish the first two, now only one on my “bucket list” to accomplish before I die. Let’s hope all goes well and I will be able to visit my little fostered baby elephant, Kanook. Thank you.

    Marlene Morrow


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