From afar, the cries of a baby elephant in distress seem almost human. Drawn by the sounds, young Samburu warriors, long spears in hand, thread their way toward a wide riverbed, where they find the victim. The calf is half-submerged in sand and water, trapped in one of the hand-dug wells that dot the valley. Only its narrow back can be seen—and its trunk, waving back and forth like a cobra.
As recently as a year ago, the men likely would have dragged the elephant out before it could pollute the water and would have left it to die. But this day they do something different: Using a cell phone, ubiquitous even in remotest Kenya, they send a message to Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, about six miles away. Then they sit and wait.
Reteti lies within a 975,000-acre swath of thorny scrubland in northern Kenya known as the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust—part of the ancestral homeland of the Samburu people. Namunyak is supported and advised by the Northern Rangelands Trust, a local organization that works with 33 community conservancies to boost security, sustainable development, and wildlife conservation.
The region includes the Turkana, Rendille, Borana, and Somali, as well as the Samburu—ethnic groups that have fought to the death over the land and its resources. Now they’re working together to strengthen their communities and protect the estimated 6,000 elephants they live, sometimes uneasily, alongside.
The riverbed that the Samburu men have come to looks dry and unyielding, but just below the surface is water. Elephants can smell water, and Samburu families, guided by elephants’ scrapings, have dug narrow wells to reach the cold, clean, mineral-rich elixir. Each family maintains a particular well, which can be as much as 15 feet deep. While drawing water, Samburus sing a rhythmic chant praising their cattle, luring the animals to the life-giving source. During the dry months (February, March, September, and October) the Samburu deepen their “singing wells,” and elephants, desperate to drink, come to the wells too. Sometimes they lose their footing and fall in.
The warriors don’t have to wait long before a Reteti rescue team arrives in a custom-built Land Cruiser, led by Joseph Lolngojine and Rimland Lemojong, both Samburu. The men have seen this before and go to work swiftly, digging out the sides of the well, widening its mouth so that two of them can step in and slip a harness under the elephant’s belly. Then perhaps 12 hours after the mishap, the rescuers, grunting with the effort, hoist the little elephant into the morning sunlight.
Now comes another wait, this time much longer. Elephants are creatures of habit, and more often than not a herd will return to familiar places to drink, and the hope is that this baby, a female, will be reunited with her mother and family.
Lolngojine and Lemojong walk the elephant, weakened and dehydrated, into protective shade at the edge of the valley. Gauze is laid over her eyes to calm her down, water poured over her head, and a wool blanket draped over her back. She’s going into shock, so a saline rehydration solution is prepared in a half-gallon feeding bottle. With a little trial and error, the calf finds the nipple, sucks greedily, then collapses into a deep sleep.
Through the afternoon and into the evening, the men offer the saline as the agitated baby cries plaintively for her family. By dusk the singing wells are quiet. In the moonlit dark the gray hulk of a big bull materializes to drink. The baby, perhaps mistaking the elephant for her mother, begins to follow the form, with Lolngojine and Lemojong behind her. After a while, spooked by the whoops of hyenas, she trundles back to her Samburu minders. The imprinting on human surrogates has begun.
All night the team sits vigil, waiting, hoping, straining ears for the rumblings of her herd. At dawn, some 36 hours after the warriors found the elephant, waiting is no longer an option. They lift the elephant, swaddled in blankets, into the vehicle and head for the sanctuary.
Nestled within the crook of a half-moon-shaped ridge, the Reteti elephant orphanage was established in 2016 by local Samburus. Funding has come from Conservation International, San Diego Zoo Global, and Tusk UK. The Kenya Wildlife Service and the Northern Rangelands Trust provide ongoing support. The first rescued elephant, named Suyian, arrived on September 25. The sanctuary’s more than 20 elephant keepers are Samburus, all intent on returning their charges, under a dozen as of now, to the wild.
As soon as the weakened elephant arrives, Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk, who prepares elephant food at Reteti, readies a half-gallon bottle of special formula. Lolngojine, the sanctuary’s veterinary technician, examines the calf and smears antibiotic ointment on any cuts. It’s decided that the elephant should be named Kinya, after the well of her misfortune.
The need for elephant orphanages like Reteti is a sad result of the decimation of herds by ivory poachers in recent decades, a pattern playing out widely in sub-Saharan Africa. During the 1970s northern Kenya was home to the biggest tuskers, along with a dense population of black rhinos, which were hunted to local extinction for their horns. Elephant numbers are now a fraction of what they were.
The loss of elephants has a ripple effect on other animals. Elephants are ecosystem “engineers” who feed on low brush and bulldoze small trees, promoting growth of grasses, which in turn attract bulk grazers like buffalo, endangered Grevy’s zebras, eland, and oryx, themselves prey for carnivores: lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, leopards.
For pastoralists like the Samburu, more grass means more food for their cattle—one reason indigenous communities have begun relating to elephants, animals long feared, in a new way. “We take care of the elephants, and the elephants are taking care of us,” Lemojong says. “We now have a relationship between us.”
The 6,000 elephants in this part of Kenya make up the nation’s second largest population. Black rhinos are beginning to come back—a small, carefully managed population reintroduced to Sera Conservancy, adjacent to Namunyak, from parks and reserves across Kenya. Animals such as the warthog, impala, lesser kudu, buffalo, leopard, cheetah, and reticulated giraffe are on the up too.
Although overall wildlife trends are guardedly positive, poaching still occurs, as does conflict between people and elephants at water holes: Last year 71 elephants were killed in northern Kenya in confrontations with villagers; six died at the hands of poachers.
In the past the local people weren’t much interested in trying to save elephants. A rescued calf had to be transported to Kenya’s only orphanage, some 240 miles away, near Nairobi. If successfully rehabilitated, the youngster would have to be released into Tsavo National Park, with no hope of reunification with its original herd way to the north.
But now, with Reteti, elephant orphans, like two-year-old Shaba, the oldest resident at the time of my visit, can be returned to their home ground, where they’ll have a good chance of reconnecting with their relatives. According to Reteti management, Shaba should be ready to take those steps after about eight months.
Right now Shaba is the boss. She leads her small band of baby elephants into the bush around the sanctuary, stripping leaves, tasting bark, pushing down small trees, and, best of all, taking luxurious mud baths.
Shaba’s instincts kick in to teach the others. When a two-month-old baby is unable to negotiate a gully, Shaba backtracks and demonstrates how to scramble across. She already has the hallmarks of an attentive matriarch, and if someone startles a baby, she’ll charge.
Feeding is a big part of the day’s work for the handlers. Half-gallon-size bottles of special formula are given every three hours around the clock, and drinking is a noisy, slurpy affair. Afterward the elephants fall into a deep stupor.
Nearly all the staff come from neighboring communities, and all are Samburu. As Lemojong puts it, “When I was a young boy, I first looked after the kids of goats, then goats, then upgraded to cows. Then I went to school. I am so happy because I used to raise my family’s cows here, and now I am raising baby elephants. It’s incredible.” Lolngojine adds, “When I go home, my community is asking by name how each elephant is.”
“Shaba was too thin, but now she is broad and fat,” says Lowuekuduk. “Before, I was afraid of wild animals, especially elephants,” she says, “but now I see them differently. The sanctuary has changed my feelings about elephants.”
One day a Samburu community group of mostly women and children made a daylong drive to the sanctuary simply for the chance to have a close look at elephants. They stand at the viewing platform and watch the elephants at play. One young male, named Pokot, loves kicking a ball with his caretakers, his antics provoking ripples of excited laughter. But on the whole the observers are respectful, speaking in hushed tones. They’re a little nervous too, unused to seeing other Samburus interacting so closely with elephants.
What’s happening here at Reteti, without fanfare, is nothing less than the beginnings of a transformation in the way Samburus relate to wild animals they have long feared. This oasis where orphans grow up, learning to be wild so that one day they can rejoin their herds, is as much about the people as it is about elephants.
For the Samburu there is joy in this work of elephant rehabilitation. And there is heartbreak. Like many calves who become separated from their mothers, little Kinya, whose rescue was so hard won, didn’t make it.
“It’s so sad that Kinya died,” Lemojong says. “We all worked hard to make sure Kinya should get a second chance to live.”
HOW TO HELP: Learn what you can do to help orphaned elephants at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary.