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The nursery for lost and found baby jumbos

Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Samburu is a caring centre for orphaned animals

Karen Karimi @Karimi_Karen

The Samburu people of Kenya’s northern plains have been in conflict with elephants for years. Both the jumbos and humans need water and drought means there’s less to go around. The majestic animals also tear down acacia trees, which some of the Samburus’ livestock feed on.

These are just a few of the reasons people in the region have a history of killing elephants. The good news is that a wave of wildlife protection is emerging. A growing movement at the grassroots level, community-focused conservation is gaining huge momentum in northern Kenya.

Once heavily poached and severely degraded by instability, the northern rangeland is restoring itself through transparent, self-governed community conservancies that promote the preservation of natural resources so as to create stability, employment and revenue.

Or so we found out during a recent tour of the region. After an exhilarating, heart-stopping, once-in-a-lifetime black rhino tracking session at sunrise, we made our way back to Saruni Rhino camp for breakfast by the river bed followed by a short rest.

Duncan, our wonderful Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) guide, then packed us in his 4WD and so started our journey to Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. Although only 40km away, it took us nearly two hours to reach the site.

We drove through the landscape of the Sera Community Conservancy and into the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation area in Samburu county. Dry, semi-arid orange dirt and stones licked the truck as we bounced our way towards the looming Mathews Range (also known as the Lenkiyio Hills) – is a range of mountains about 150 km long.


Dik dik’s danced and pranced past us, as did wild hare and an abundance of birds. We finally arrived at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary for orphaned elephants run by the Samburu community operating as the Namunyak Conservancy under the umbrella of the NRT.

The Samburu, who are nomadic livestock herders, have partnered with the local government since 2016 to release and raise injured and orphaned baby jumbos in Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. They now take care of 12 of these little kings and queens, forging a new relationship between humans and wildlife. It’s the first elephant orphanage in Africa owned and run by the local community.

Reteti lies within a 975,000-acre swath of thorny scrubland in the Namunyak Conservancy, part of the ancestral homeland of the Samburu people. Namunyak is supported and advised by the NRT, an organisation that works with 33 community conservancies to boost security, sustainable development and wildlife conservation.

The goal of Reteti is to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned or abandoned elephants and, where possible, return them to the wild and continue monitoring them. It is also a symbol of the local Samburu communities standing up united for wildlife, in recognition of the many values it has for them.

Tusk Funding

Looking after orphans is not cheap. The calves are fed on a litre of powdered milk every three hours — a formula that Dame Daphne Sheldrick came up with in the 1970s when poaching was at its height, leaving many orphaned jumbos in its wake. A 14km water pipe keeps the waterhole full since the calves need a mud hole to bathe and cool off.

A few minutes later, the older calves arrive from their walk, gulping down milk and boisterously trooping to the waterhole. There’s one who catches everyone’s attention. Rescued on November 10, 2016, near the Shaba National Reserve, she’s called Sheba. She’s the most playful and splashes water on everyone around her.

The keeper leads the smallest calf to the pool, but it won’t step into the water. So he sprays it with water using a hosepipe and then throws red soil over it with a spade.  The resulting mud acts as a sunscreen and also protects the baby jumbos from insect bites; this is what elephant mothers in the wild do.

Tusk Funding has enabled Reteti Elephant Sanctuary to maintain its operations by supporting basic administration, elephant welfare, salaries, rescue costs and milk supplies.

While poaching has fallen significantly in Samburu, elephant calves are being orphaned or abandoned via poaching, falling into wells, drought (causing mothers to stop lactating), human-wildlife conflicts and natural mortality.

About five to 10 calves are rescued in northern Kenya each year, from a population of over 8,000. Within the sanctuary, young animals are treated and cared for by the dedicated keeper team, recruited from the local communities.

A mobile elephant rescue unit, with specially trained staff, returns lost calves to their family whenever possible. The keepers are from the local community and are formally trained in the care, rehabilitation and release of elephant calves. An elected board oversees all operational aspects of the sanctuary.

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