Debora Niwa, Wife of the Elephants

Updated: Jun 25, 2020


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| This is the 459th story of Our Life Logs |

The rise and fall of the elephant’s trunk

Is a masterpiece

Carved by the ones who wish to

See them thrive.

-CSW

Section Break-Mountains

1 | To See Something Beautiful

I was born in Skien, Norway, in 1961, and as a child, I spent most of my time outside. The more time I spent in it, the closer I grew to it, and my love reached further to nature’s universal children: animals. I believe that my parents, with their loving nature towards animals of all kinds, made it grow stronger.

My first encounters with animals were mainly domestic; I would walk the dogs in my neighborhood, bring home mice I found, and make friends with visiting squirrels. However, I feel that the spark which ignited my lifelong passion is found in my first meeting with wildlife—Noah’s Ark. My father would read me a picture book of Noah’s Ark before bed, and I remember seeing the colorful illustrations of giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and elephants. What a dream come true to see something this beautiful, I thought.

My love of animals didn’t stay confined to my heart and my playtime. I was inspired by television shows featuring animal doctors. One favorite of mine worked all the way out in Africa with his chimpanzee, Judy. My yearning to becoming a veterinarian grew as the years went by.

Section Break-Mountains

2 | A Cheeky Young Calf

I began my academic career in America—Denver, Colorado, particularly. I decided on this city since it was the only place which offered my ideal path of study: a degree that focused on animal technology and veterinary science. Throughout my time in Denver, I had exceptional support from my professors, and I got closer to my dream. I was also given a grant while studying which gave me the opportunity to complete an externship at the Denver Zoo. Through that, I had an experience with a special animal who would unknowingly change my life.

During my externship at the Denver Zoo, I met my first wild animal in captivity: McClean, a rescued elephant calf whose mother was killed by a poacher. He was a cheeky young calf who would often steal whole bananas from me when I came to see him.

McClean was used in therapy for children with cancer, and his gentleness in dealing with these fragile humans shocked me. Instead of his usual routine of snatching whole fruits, he would take a slice of apple from each child’s hand with a tenderness and patience that one would not expect to see from an elephant. It was McClean who inspired a great love of elephants within me—a love that was to take me on a path I could never imagine.

Section Break-Mountains

3 | My Heart Ached for the Creatures I Loved So

After completing my studies in Denver, I continued on my veterinary path in Liverpool, England. I felt my time studying in England was harder than in America. There, I earned my bachelor’s in veterinary science. However, after seeing countless ill, suffering animals, my heart ached for the creatures I loved so. My fierce pursuit of my childhood dream lost its once-bright spark. Had the path I followed since I was a little girl ended at a wall? Would I ever be able to climb it?

During this time, I remembered the Denver Zoo. I thought of McClean, the mischievous little calf who’d always steal food, and how patient he’d become when he was dealing with more fragile souls. What a wonderful creature whose behavior was more human than humans! With that memory, I broke down the wall before me and uncovered a brand-new road.

I decided to change my career path to zoology. I wished to deal with animals who were healthy rather than sick, and I wanted to study species who were endangered as well. I finished a second bachelor’s in Liverpool, this time one of science, with special courses in animal behavior and sociobiology.

During my time in Liverpool, I completed research on animals I had now grown so close to, elephants. I studied elephants in captivity at the Chester Zoo for a while, and even then I could still see the effects of poaching and needless killing on the overall elephant population, as well as on the rescues that were brought in. I wished so deeply that there was something I could do to help them, even if all I could offer was knowledge.

Photos of elephants at Chester Zoo that I took during research.
Photos of elephants at Chester Zoo that I took during research.

As I started on my master’s degree, the chance to help I had been hoping for finally came to me. However, rather than doing my work in a zoo as I had done before, my fieldwork would be done all the way in…Namibia, in Etosha National Park.

Section Break-Mountains

4 | A Culling Stopped

My time in Namibia presented its own unique challenges. While my previous studies of wildlife were confined to zoos and classrooms and books—with help from professors and fellow scientists, of course—I was my own team in Namibia. Though I did have a camp, it was not located in a place that I could conduct my fieldwork. Instead, I’d have to live in the national park when working. I had no walkie-talkie, nor did I have a radio. My living quarters, a tent, had no insulation or cooling. Even in the face of these material difficulties, one of the hardest trials of all was the loneliness that I felt during this time. My heart wavered, of course. A feeling that is so human isn’t forgotten just because one has a job to do.

My main purpose was to help protect Namibian elephants subjected to culling, the killing of an animal species done to reduce its population, and in this case, to limit the elephants’ destruction of the acacia forests.