16 August 2017

Kenya: Foes Turned Friends

Photo: Paul Letiwa/Daily Nation
Joseph Loingojine, a caregiver at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, feeds a baby elephant with a specially developed formula.

Not too long ago, Samburu warriors who came across an injured or abandoned baby elephant would have gladly killed it, or at best, left it to die. For many years the herders in the vast, rugged region that is Samburuland saw elephants as enemies.

However, this perception has changed dramatically, with the Samburu now working with conservationists to save the estimated 5,000 animals living in the forests near their temporary dwellings.

"We take care of the elephants, and the elephants take care of us; we have developed a special relationship with them," Joseph Loingojine, one of the caregivers at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in the heart of Samburuland, told DN2 during a recent visit to the sanctuary.

When they hear the cries of a baby elephant in distress, young Samburu warriors, armed with spears, rush to its aid.

"Most of the time they find a calf half-buried in sand and water, trapped in one of the hand-dug wells that dot the valley. They use their cell phones to send a message to the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary team," says Mr Longojine.

When the rescuers arrive, they quickly get down to work, digging the sides of the well to widen its mouth so that two people can climb inside and slip a harness around the elephant's belly. Hours later, the rescuers, with the help of the warriors, hoist the calf out. Thereafter, they place it, wrapped in blankets, into a vehicle and head for the sanctuary.

Taking care of a baby elephant is no walk in the park, but the Reteti team has developed a milk formula that is just right for a new-born elephant during its first few delicate months.

Baby elephants are born weighing between 77 and 113 kg, and standing about 91 cm tall at the shoulder. They can consume 11.4 litres of milk in a day.

A newborn calf gradually settles into a three-hourly feeding routine, day and night, and the caregivers are always there for the orphaned babies. The caregivers monitor the calves closely, covering them with blankets when it is cold, and with waterproof material in rainy weather. They also cover the calves with an umbrella and apply sunscreen on their skin when they are exposed to the sun during the first two months of life.

Mr Loingojine and his colleagues work on a rotational basis to prevent the calves from becoming attached to one person and pining when that person is not around.

"I have discovered that elephants are tactile and highly social animals. We talk to them and demonstrate genuine, heartfelt affection; that is what they like," he explains.

According to experts, the way a grown-up elephant reacts in the company of humans depends on how it was handled by humans when it was young.

The time it takes for an orphaned elephant to get used to living in the wild and feeling comfortable in a wild herd is determined by the age at which it was orphaned, its personality, and the friends it has made, the caregivers say.

"Gradually, the orphan begins to associate more with elephants, eventually finding elephant company more stimulating than ours. But we continue to monitor them until they become fully mature," he adds.

Notably, female elephants nurture and love those younger and smaller than themselves, a tendency that is evident at the sanctuary.

"The young bulls are more independent and more competitive within their peer group, always eager to dominate, just like young boys. They wrestle a lot and tend to be much 'rougher' during play than the females, and also tend to be more unruly, but they have developed a strong love for the caregivers," says Tom Letiwa, the sanctuary's manager.

Reteti lies within a 975,000-acre swathe of thorny bush under the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust, which is supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust, a local organisation that works with more than 33 community conservancies to boost security, sustainable development, and wildlife conservation.


Namunyak, which began as two group ranches more than 15 years ago, has now expanded to include the four neighboring group ranches surrounding the Matthews Forest. The Sarara, Sapache, Ngilai West, Ngilai Central, Ngare Narok and Ndonyo Wuasin group ranches now make up the 394,000 hectare Namunyak Conservancy.

"Namunyak means "blessed" in the Samburu language, and an aerial view of this rangeland makes it easy to see why the name was chosen. It surrounds the Matthews Mountain range, a rich expanse of lush indigenous forest which hosts abundant populations of wildlife and rare plant species," says Titus Letaapo, the chief programmes officer at the Northern Rangelands Trust.

As they herd their livestock, Samburu warriors traverse the rough and thorny landscape. When it rains, raging rivers flow for a short time, but when there is no rain, as was the case in July, the beds dry up and turn into huge sand dunes that are found across the landscape. It's here that elephants, zebras, rhinos and other wild animals are protected from poachers and hunters.


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