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Ambo the Elephant: A Love Story

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Ambo's picture in the DSWT fostering book at the Enormous Elephant Run

2016 was not my best year. By the time fall rolled around I was in a pretty dark place: my writing was yielding less-than-stellar results, work was pathetically slow, my energy was lagging so my weight was rising, and most significantly I was not coping well with the disintegration of my closest friendship. I had more free time than I knew what to do with and instead of using it to my advantage, I had little desire to do anything.

I was real joy to be around.

On the night of October 3rd I was at a point where I knew I needed to change. I desperately wanted to create a shift toward the positive. I could not continue feeling so awful. Sitting with me was my stuffed elephant friend, Ganesha. He was a recent comforting gift from my mother- named for the titular elephant in Vaseem Kahn’s Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series- and a symbol of my lifelong enjoyment of those complex, stunning animals. I was looking Ganesha's eternally understanding face at some point after midnight when I realized it was time to put my money where my mouth was. I was well aware that the plight of elephants was dire, both in Africa and Asia, and that the cause of this was predominantly because humans can be terrible, killing them for their tusks. I knew my friend Alison (of MythTake) fostered an owl, so why could I not do for an elephant what she was doing for her favorite animal? It was about time I stepped up and did something, however small, to help the elephants.

Alison was one of my great pillars of support during these awful months, and when I mentioned my interest in fostering an elephant, she knew what to do. She pointed me to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a tremendously big-hearted organization in Kenya. There, under the auspices of Dame Daphne Sheldrick, they not only protect wild elephants from poachers and other horrors but also hand-raise orphaned ones. The dedicated caregivers employed by DSWT ensure their charges grow up comfortable and loved, building a new family and learning the ways of elephant life until they reintegrate into wild herds of their own volition. I grew increasingly excited about their work, and the more I read, the more I knew I would become a foster parent (at only $50 a year, even my paltry income at that time could afford it)…that was, of course, assuming I could choose which elephant I wanted to take under my financial wing since I simply could not take on all of them.

The decision was far simpler than I imagined. When I opened the list of nursery babies, sorted in order of when they entered the program, one entry near the top screamed out at me:

Ambo's Entry in the DSWT Foster List

Ambo, rescued at the start of my Very Bad Year, was listed as orphaned due to being “stuck in mud.”

Call me ridiculous, I don’t mind, but in this moment I felt like the clouds parted and I could see the sky again. Getting stuck in the mud is unfortunately not an unusual cause of orphaning for elephants. Typically, once this happens the herd will do everything in its power to try and get the baby out, but if it cannot it must eventually move on- a traumatic event for all parties involved. In Ambo’s case, he was discovered and reported, and the DSWT set out to collect him. I ate up every word of his profile (and the accompanying video of his rescue), learning that this little fighter had actually freed himself from the mud by the time his rescuers arrived, but because he was alone, he needed all the help he could get- after all, he was an unprotected, milk-dependent, four-month-old baby. He was taken in by the DSWT and brought to their Nairobi nursery where he settled in and thrives to this day.

If this baby elephant, all big ears and floppy trunk, could endure losing his whole family, and still pull himself out of the muck and integrate into a new family where he is quite happy, then surely I could stop wallowing in misery and feeling bad for myself.

As Charlotte Bronte would say: Reader, I fostered him.

Soon after, I received an e-mail thanking me that contained a link to the keepers’ journals where I could read about his progress. The e-mails have continued every month and I am not exaggerating it when I say I eagerly anticipate them.

I know that Ambo has an adopted mother he basically worships (Mbegu), that sometimes he would prefer to hide instead of go out in the rain, and that he has lots of friends. I know he is generally considered to be a good boy but he has no problem defending himself, and has an ongoing love-hate relationship with a mischievous little lady elephant named Esampu. I see pictures of him on a regular basis, and they brighten my mood. I know I am one of many who chose Ambo to foster, but in my head (just as in the heads of his other foster parents) he is “mine”. I love knowing others feel the same way and that so many people care about him and his friends.

It would be silly of me to say that from the moment I fostered him my life became perfect, it didn’t. It did, however, become more bearable, and I was much happier. The things I could change, I did, and those I couldn't, I slowly learned to handle better. In addition to feeling revitalized to attack my own life, I found that I enjoyed doing good things for elephants. Doing something for others, unsurprisingly, made me feel better about myself. Contributing is always more rewarding than taking. It is my belief that elephants are smarter and more compassionate than all of us. They deserve whatever assistance I can give them. Since I fostered Ambo I became generally more active and have done things like participate in the Enormous Elephant 10K in Central Park and attend the recent Ivory Crush done by the state of New York to protest the ivory trade. I also released a podcast for Footnoting History about Jumbo, the elephant who, in the late 1800s, had no choice but to become a celebrity at the hands of P.T. Barnum. It was my tribute to all the elephants whose lives were not spent with their families in the wild.

I hope someday to take the trip to Kenya and meet Ambo. When I do, I guarantee I will get choked up, tell everyone there how much I admire the work they do, and consider it one of the happiest days of my life.

Today marks the first anniversary of my fostering Ambo. I am in such a better state of mind than I was on October 3, 2016 that it seems a lot longer ago. I credit it largely to that moment of seeing Ambo’s profile and realizing if that little inspiration could dig himself out of the mud, I could do the same.

Help the Elephants

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Love, Life, and Elephants by Dame Daphne Sheldrick


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