The true heart of the wild

A new film explores just how deep animal emotions can run – especially in those reared by humans. Anthea Gerrie meets its two star conservationists


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 elephants."

Dame Sheldrick was in London promoting a new film whose soft-centred 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, but because they have an emotional sophistication which mimics human behaviour." Dame Sheldrick says the film shows the scientific world has been wrong to 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 like us.

"What this film shows is that these species have very human emotions, they 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.

"The elephants who have passed through the nursery make an arrangement to meet 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 stockades."

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 their habitat, saving every orphan possible is vital. While the females become carers, the males attach themselves to older bulls to learn the ropes of resolving conflict without a fight to the death. "Like boys who like to fraternise with other males, they develop a hero worship on the biggest, strongest bulls," Dame Sheldrick says.

When these high-ranking bulls are lost and unable to pass on rules and a sense of responsibility, deviant behaviour can develop. "You see in disrupted elephant societies the same kinds of behaviour you see in human ones – elephant rapes, for example, by younger bulls behaving badly," she says. On the happier side, elephants have an astonishingly sophisticated social life. "They use infrasound to keep in touch like we use phone and email. We know of one elephant in the north who travels 600 miles to the coast, streaking through areas of human habitation every single year, just to 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 Museum, does 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," Fellman says.

"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 ago was 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 tough," she 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 work after weeping buckets over the ones we have loved and lost, but we have to keep on for the sake of the ones who need us.

"That's a lesson the elephants have taught me – grieve and mourn deeply the ones who have gone, but concentrate on trying to save the others.

"If I 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

Birute Galdikas

A protégé of paleontologist Louis Leakey, she has spent nearly 40 years studying, rescuing and rehabilitating orangutans in Borneo.

Jane Goodall

The world's foremost chimpanzee expert has studied the animals for 45 years in Tanzania, observing the animals' capacity for emotion.

Dian Fossey

The 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

The Born Free couple raised orphaned lion cubs and rehabilitated other big cats in Africa. They were murdered, separately, in the 1980s.

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