Water is life — how nature provides by Daphne Sheldrick

Water is, indeed, life; for without it, there would be no life. Water is what makes our planet unique within our solar system. Evaporation from the land is sucked into the clouds of the sky, which float around the earth depositing it in the form of rain far and wide at certain times of the year  into natural depressions and rocky fissures in wild places, over forests that act as sponges so that life giving water is released methodically and systematically into rivers that flow through the land to the sea, enabling all water dependent creatures in wild places to quench their thirst from the rivers’ banks. What seeps through the spongy forest soils recharges underground aquifers that act as storage for precious subterranean reserves.

Morning light reveals a waterhole connected to Tsavo's harsh landscape by a network of animal paths. Photograph by Nick Nichols

However, nature provides much, much more. It gives us the elephants and the hippos, both vital agents for precious water resources in wild arid lands, both totally water dependent, and both necessary for the wellbeing of all others who depend upon water for life. With their great feet, and their great weight, elephants wallow in natural depressions to stabilize their body temperature, trampling and sealing the base so that it becomes impenetrable and will be able to hold water much longer into the dry seasons than would otherwise have been the case. Elephants love plastering their bodies with mud to protect themselves from the sun and biting flies, and to keep their bodies cooler longer and better protected as they traverse great tracts of land in their long range wanderings. Each and every one of them carries away huge quantities of mud on its body, and in this way what was once a small depression is deepened and enlarged.

Elephants passing through waterhole in Tsavo. Photograph by Nick Nichols.

Herd of buffalo cool down in this waterhole in Tsavo. Photograph by DSWT

Traditionally, elephant herds follow their leader, and in so doing create narrow trails through the wilderness that not only lead the way to water but also channel runoff rain water, funneling it into the natural waterholes at the onset of each rainy season.

Waterhole filled during the heavy, seasonal rains in Tsavo. Photograph by DSWT

Jackals at a nearly dry waterhole. Photograph by Nick Nichols.

Science has recently decreed that the great “river horses” (i.e. the hippos), are in fact, distant cousins anciently related to the elephants, and in terms of water conservation, Nature has allotted them a similar important function. By lazing in the waterholes during the hours of daylight, they too ensure that the base remains firmly sealed and they  fertilize the water with their dung, so that fish and other waterborne species can exist, contributing to the cycle of life, each in its own specific way. With their widely spaced front and back feet they create double “roads” that lead to water and in the wet seasons many leave the rivers to occupy the waterholes the elephants have created and in so doing feed frogs and fish alike. Without the elephants and the hippos, all water dependent creatures would suffer and without the forests and the rivers, so will Homo sapiens, arguably the most destructive species on earth, who is not only killing the elephants and the hippos for their teeth, but also destroying the forests – all of which are serious crimes against Nature and also ones that hold grim repercussions in the long-run for our own existence on earth.

Fertilised water supports other aquatic life. Photograph by DSWT

Waterhole formed, in part, by runoff from the spectacular Mudanda rock. Photograph by Nick Nichols

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has long recognised the need to provide permanent water features for wildlife available to wild animals during the harshest droughts. Restricted donations to support lifesaving water initiatives are deeply appreciated.


  1. The pictures are soooo beautiful. It feels as if I was there, feel, hear, smell…. just wonderful!µ

  2. I’ve been following the project for some years now, and fostering some elephants and a rhino. I even got to go to Nairobi to take my kids to see the elephants and rhino. Congratulations on such a serious work.
    Yesterday, I finish reading Love, life and elephants, an African love story. SO happy I got it. Love it, specially because I know the project for quite a long time now.
    So good the world has people like you to do what you do with a huge passion for the wildlife.
    Congratulationds on the journal. I love reading it. It makes me feel closer to this beautiful place you live.

  3. Daphne I don’t know how you do it, fighting such an uphill battle with so much poaching and other conflicts, to know so many elephants are being killed you must live each day wondering if “your babies” will become one of them. My husband and I so admire you and all the “family” for the ongoing work you all do. It has to be time soon for us to return to Africa and attend a mud bath session.

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