Behind and below Katie, the midday wallow is in trumpeting progress. Some small elephants push and shove boisterously. Others contentedly rub on favourite scratching trees worn smooth by a succession of big bottoms. We are standing on a visitor platform that allows fantastic viewing but little interaction with the orphaned elephants that are destined for rewilding. This is Reteti Wildlife Sanctuary in Namunyak Conservancy, Samburu, where the trailblazing communities have joined forces to rescue the orphaned elephants.
What are some of the highlights of Reteti having succeeded in its conservation efforts thus far?
Having proud, capable and thriving women on our team who are making their own life choices; these women are role models in a bold and useful conservation project designed and run by their own communities. Second, tribal pastoralists coming in and asking about an orphan by name, being able to have that conversation because of interest generated from their side is so rewarding. And of course getting mis-adventurous elephants back to their mothers before they become orphans is a true highlight.
Tell me about setting up the sanctuary…
The 2011 drought hit Northern Kenya hard. In our region, elephants were falling down wells, dying in conflict and from drought consequences. The community was simultaneously asking for assistance and opportunities. Tolerance levels were falling and HWC (human wildlife conflict) increasing. With the full backing of the community, we partnered with a host of organisations such as Conservation International to bring employment to the community members as custodians of their own heritage. The two went together and made so much more sense marching into the future hand-in-hand with hundreds of years of history behind them.
KWS and Northern Rangelands Trust have been invaluable partners and have made incredibly positive impacts and additions of knowledge to the local Samburu communities of Namunyak.
The biggest hurdle came in ensuring that the needs of everyone were met – community elders and the young, literate and illiterate, lodge and guests, financial partners and donors, ourselves and of course the elephant calves. It has been trial and error and while there is still a lot to learn, things have begun to come together now.
How do the elephant calves get to and leave Reteti?
Mostly as drought victims but also from HWC and poaching. As wells get deeper, babies frequently fall in. In drought times we post teams in hotspots and when a baby elephant tumbles into the abyss, the call goes out and the calf is pulled out while the mother is still in the vicinity. If we wait and the community and their cows arrive, this task becomes extremely difficult. In 2017 we managed to get eight well victims back to their mothers within hours!
Describe a general day at Reteti…
A Reteti day runs 24/7, 365 days a year with day and night shifts and a host of committed community drawn keepers. At dawn the keepers hand over medical instructions and little elephants on life support. Elephants rouse themselves from sheltered stables or from social groups that have huddled together in night bomas watched intently by their human guardians. The gates open and the day brings familiar smells, sounds and sights; a landscape of familiarity for a wounded elephant and one that is vital in rebuilding their desire to live. Midday brings the mud wallow followed by an afternoon of wild and stewarded freedom from which the elephants return home to a bottle of formula every three hours.
Reteti is a community conservation effort. How does this work and what has Reteti brought to the community?
The community involvement in this project is the reason this orphanage exists. Between them and KWS they are the authority on the entire project. The people have been able to recast themselves as proud custodians of their own wildlife and land. Lots of the people here never had the opportunity to go to school – no English, Swahili as a second language, illiterate, and yet they are pulling their weight on the project. It gives them a dream for the future and shows them that they are capable in this changing world. With employment levels on the up we are not just saving a species but breaking down stereotypes, breaking ground with new ideas and fresh thinking while redefining wildlife management. The community is able to show itself that there is no need to break down to wildlife antagonism when tough times come.
How does the conservancy promote the preservation of natural resources?
The communities can clearly see that they in fact hold the responsibility of their future…this mentality change has brought pride and self reliance to the Namunyak communities. There is achievement, power and strength embedded in self belief. We find that where Reteti promotes this, the side effect is the preservation of natural resources.