Six trips to Africa for heroic work: Wyndmoor’s ‘elephant lady’ trying to prevent extinction

Local Life May 16, 2014 0 Comments

Wyndmoor’s Judith Hain discovers that a four-month-old orphan has teeth at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Baby Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo by Sharon Bigelow)

Wyndmoor’s Judith Hain discovers that a four-month-old orphan has teeth at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Baby Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo by Sharon Bigelow)

by Carole Verona

In 1930, about five to 10 million elephants roamed the plains of Africa. Today, fewer than 450,000 remain, and that number continues to diminish rapidly. Approximately 35,000 elephants are killed every year by poaching.

To most people, these numbers are just statistics on a page, published by the African Wildlife Trust or similar conservation groups. But to Judith Hain, 68, a resident of Wyndmoor for more than 25 years, they are personal.

On one of her six trips to Africa, Hain hid in a school bus and kept track of how many elephants visited a local watering hole. Another time, she sat in an open jeep, surrounded by 50 or more elephants, listening to them breathe and chew grass. She was so close that she could even hear the baby elephants suckling. “The elephants would come as night was falling. They’d appear out of nowhere; they’re like ghosts,” she said. “You don’t have any idea that they’re coming. Then suddenly you are surrounded.”

Hain traces her interest in elephants back to the time when she was a small child, and her mother read the story of Babar to her. Since then, she has been fascinated by elephants, especially by their size and gentleness.

Over the years, she became aware that the elephant population is diminishing. She explained that they are slaughtered for their tusks. The biggest market is China, followed by the U.S., where the ivory is used for jewelry, trinkets and religious artifacts. “If the poaching is allowed to continue, we will have no more elephants in a short period of time,” Hain said.

In the late 1990s, a colleague gave her a brochure about an elephant research trip to Kenya, sponsored by a group called Earthwatch. “I showed it my husband, he read through it and said, ‘this looks like a wonderful trip … for you.’ Then he paused for a long time and said again…‘for you!’ I had never thought about going alone, I didn’t know I had the nerve to do that.”

Hain signed up anyway. When she arrived in Nairobi, she met a fellow traveler, Sharon Bigelow, from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. “It turned out that Sharon was the first female captain of a 747; she worked for Northwest Airlines. She was also traveling on her own because she loved elephants, too. So, we decided we would be roommates, and we shared a tent for two weeks.” Since that first visit, Hain and Bigelow have been back five times.

On the first trip, Hain worked with Dr. Barbara McKnight, a researcher who was studying the movement of elephants in East and West Tsavo National Park in Kenya. While there, Hain learned about vegetation patterns and also how to identify elephants by age and gender. “As you watch, the elephants have kind of a pecking order. The bulls come first; the mothers and calves are next.”

The elephant families greet each other at the watering hole. “They may have just seen each other earlier in the day, but when they see each other again, they have a greeting ritual. They flap their ears, entwine their trunks, and they trumpet. They’re excited and happy to see one another. I was enchanted. I realized I was totally touched by Kenya, Africa and the wildlife.”

On the next trip, Hain went to Masai Mara, which she describes as “a beautiful national reserve, kind of quintessential Africa, a place where you are able to drive off-road. You can really get close to the animals while they are doing their natural thing.” Sitting in a private vehicle with an experienced guide named Benedict, Hain felt totally safe. “Wild animals are amazingly disinterested in people in vehicles. They regard you as another part of the landscape. But if you were to stick your hand out, you would be inviting disaster. Although the guides don’t carry guns, they know how to take care of you.”

On Hain’s most recent trip in February of this year, she stayed at the camp run by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a famous elephant researcher. She also spent time at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, run by Sheldrick’s widow Daphne, who has dedicated her life to rescuing orphaned baby elephants, raising them and reintroducing them back into the wild. In fact, she has perfected a nutritious formula that helps keep the babies alive.

The orphaned baby elephants are captured, secured so that they won’t run away and flown to the nursery. “They’re aggressive because they’ve been traumatized. They’ll shove at you and try to charge you. It’s usually a spectacle. Each orphan is kept in a separate stall. A keeper sleeps in the stall with them every night and will feed them milk every three hours.

“The keepers are all men from different tribes throughout Kenya. It’s difficult to hire women for this job because they are busy raising their own children. The men must make a 10-year commitment to the job, so that there’s consistency in the life of the orphans. They’re very caring and gentle with the babies, and they form deep attachments with them,” she said.

Sharon Bigelow (left), of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Judith Hain, of Wyndmoor, are seen with two of the orphan babies at the Sheldrick Turst Orphanage in Nairobi.

Sharon Bigelow (left), of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Judith Hain, of Wyndmoor, are seen with two of the orphan babies at the Sheldrick Turst Orphanage in Nairobi.

In the nursery, the babies are surrounded and welcomed by other orphans, which simulates a family environment for them. When they are old enough, they are moved to a stockade in Tsavo. Under strict supervision, they are gradually and carefully reintroduced back to the wild. The ex-orphans often return to the stockade to check-in, say hello and welcome the new orphans. “It’s remarkable to watch them. They’re highly emotional and highly intelligent,” Hain said.

“They say if you blow in an elephant’s trunk, he will remember you forever. One of the big pleasures in going to the nursery is that they let you blow into a baby elephant’s trunk. I’ve come to know and love Kenya and the people there. I don’t know how those who dedicate their lives to the elephants can stand the devastation.”

Back in this country, Hain combines her love of elephants with her former career as a teacher. Two years ago, she spoke to a class of fifth and sixth graders at The Miquon School. Through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, she adopted a baby elephant for each child. “The students got to follow their baby elephants for one year. They were filled with questions and enthusiasm. To share a love with young children is a gift.”

Internally, Kenya recently adopted very strict anti-poaching laws. Poachers are fined 20 million Kenyan shillings (approximately $230,000) or face life imprisonment.

Here at home, on July 1, 2013, President Obama convened a Cabinet-level task force composed of the State, Interior and Justice departments that was charged with devising a national strategy to curb the illegal trade of wildlife across the globe. The initiative also included $10 million specifically earmarked for addressing poaching in Africa, particularly of rhinos and elephants. This was followed on February 11, 2014 by a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which prohibits the import, export or resale within the United States of elephant ivory except in a very limited number of circumstances.

Hain, who grew up in New Rochelle, NY., recently retired as Vice-President for Human Resources at Montclair State University. Before that, she worked for the State of New Jersey, doing labor relations work in the governor’s office of employee relations. She previously taught history in the Abington School District and was assistant principal at Keith Valley Middle School in the Hatboro-Horsham School District.

She received a B.A. degree in history from Arcadia University in 1968, certification for superintendent from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974 and an M.A. degree in labor relations from Rutgers University in 1980.

Her husband, Stuart, an avid supporter of her efforts on behalf of elephants, is a vice president at Swarthmore College. The couple live in Wyndmoor with their two rescue dogs, Mia and DJ.

Hain invites anyone who is interested in elephants and the effort to save them to contact her at hainj@mail.montclair.edu. You can learn more about the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust at www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.