Debora Niwa, Wife of the Elephants

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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.

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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.

What I discovered throughout my research was that these animals—or rather, the generation before—had themselves planted these forests. Namibian elephants dispersed seeds that had passed through their stomachs, a process that increased the germination of these seeds by 60 percent. After these findings were made known in my master’s thesis, the culling of the elephants in Etosha Park ceased; after all, it was their forest, planted from their own bodies. Nature and its children were entwined, not at war—it just took a closer look to see how.

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Acacia trees broken by elephants, as seen in my thesis.

Section Break-Mountains

5 | What the Fulani People Knew

In 1995, I headed to Cameroon to work on The Ray Project, which strove to preserve animals and prevent poaching. In this project, I was both a researcher and zoologist in the buffer zone of Bénoué National Park. While in Namibia it was difficult, considering the lack of some amenities so common in my day-to-day life, living in Cameroon shed a new light of appreciation on what I previously had. There were no little shops as there were in Namibia, nor were there a group of scientists or a community of those familiar to me. I had no electricity, no car, no support. It was just me in Cameroon, with a little mud hut and my elephants. I was debora niwa, wife of the elephants, to the next-door Fulani tribe with whom I could barely communicate.

DeboraNiwa
Me, “debora niwa.”

I admit I lived a privileged life, and I was given opportunities that I believe have shaped me into who I am today. But, it was there, amidst the simplicity and poverty of Cameroon, where my path took one of its biggest turns.

Though I lived simply and at most times lonely with nothing but a straw door shielding me from the creatures of the park, I was given a lesson about, well, knowledge. I have learned this from the Fulani people, my outstanding Cameroonian neighbors in Elephant Camp #7 of the buffer zone.

The Fulanis I knew were poor. They lived in small huts and made their living off simple agriculture, mainly maize, yet, they didn’t see themselves as poor. They saw all the wonders their world had to offer and understood more than those with doctorates. They saw beauty within themselves and were proud of their Arabian heritage. They saw beauty within the elephants, and they were the best conservationists I had ever known. They saw beauty within their blessings, giving no mind that they didn’t have much. Even with what little they had, they were such generous souls and brought me gifts—an egg here, a chicken there, and even a honeycomb laden with honey.

This view of theirs, I believe, was a knowledge that couldn’t be found by reading books or taking tests or earning degrees to hang over polished desks. It was a knowledge gained by experiencing life and opening their hearts to what the world tries to show us. Here I was, an Oxford graduate with a published thesis, learning such important things from some who were even illiterate.

Section Break-Mountains

6 | A Man to Marry

Throughout my life, I had learned that when a wall begins to rise, it’s time to turn to a new chapter or a new point of view.

It was the chief of the Fulani village, Ardo, who told me something that made it crumble in one fell swoop. Through a translator he told me, “You have to go to your country to find a man to marry. Have children with him, because it’s not good to have only elephant children. Then, you can come back and take care of the elephants.”

I was already engaged when the chief told me this and had been for quite some time. My fiancé told me he’d wait for me to finish my work before we married. From Ardo’s words, it finally dawned on me—this chapter in my life was at an end, and another one stretched before me. In fact, it was waiting for me, arms open wide. I just had to go towards it.

I went home to Norway after three more months in Cameroon, which I spent dismantling my camp and saying goodbye. When I went home, I married my now-husband, whom I had known since 1982. At the beginning of this new chapter of family life, I thought my adventures with animals had come to an end. But, as I have come to know, life is always full of surprises.

Section Break-Mountains

7 | Beautiful Once More

My husband is from Saudi Arabia, so after the birth of my first two children, we made plans to move there. We first lived in Egypt, which gave me time to adjust to Arabian culture, language, and even the heat. Nine months later, I found myself where I now call home, Saudi Arabia.

Though I may have not walked with the elephants since I moved, I have made efforts to continue my conservation of wildlife. I helped close the Jeddah Zoo, which, unfortunately, kept its wildlife in poor conditions for 22 years. In its place, I hope a green zone can be established, so animals can live in beautiful, natural conditions. I also believe an important factor in conservation is knowledge, so I strive to spread it, especially to children. I have started “Animal Day” in my children’s school, an annual education event where children learn about the care of all types of animals.

Section Break-Mountains

8 | Wife of the Elephants

Every twist and every turn my path took me on led to hardships, to changes, to the great unknown. Yet, from life’s trials, I gained more knowledge, from people and animals alike. I found I can pave my own road, even if what stands before me is the densest forest.

 

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This is the story of Anne Mette Austmyr

Anne Mette had wanted to be a veterinarian since her childhood, but when she discovered it was something she didn’t want to do, she turned to zoology. The Norwegian-born scientist then began her incredible journey to Africa in her elephant research and conservation efforts, where she even stopped the culling in Etosha National Park through research done for her master’s thesis. After her marriage to a Saudi man, she moved to Saudi Arabia, where she continues to advocate for the welfare of all animals. Now a mother of three, Anne Mette is raising her children the same way her parents raised her—to be empathetic towards both humans and animals. In her free time, Anne Mette enjoys reading, spending time with family and friends, and doing sports, especially skiing. She also enjoys writing, and is currently working on a book about her time in Africa.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on November 25, 2019.

| Writer: Safiyya Bintali | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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3 thoughts on “Debora Niwa, Wife of the Elephants

  1. Such an interesting life be able to work with elephants , beautifully written. I wanted to know more about this wonderful lady’s life and all her accomplishments.

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