While in the Samburu County of the Matthews Mountains and the Namunyak wildlife conservancy in Kenya we visited the Reteti Elephant Orphanage. I’m not so much one for ‘cutesy’ cuddly viewings of captive baby animals set up for tourists. I’d usually avoid them like the plague as I’m rarely convinced they do the best for the animals and are more about the tourist industry. So, despite assurances from some pretty knowledgable people at our camp, you will understand if I was a bit apprehensive about this morning side trip. But I was wrong. Very wrong. Reteti is all about the animals and their place in the local ecosystem and, yes, economy. Let me explain…
Elephants need space - lots of it. When they come to close to humans things tend to go wrong and young elephants are separated or orphaned from their family groups. Typical scenarios that most people may be aware of are are mothers being poached or coming into conflict with humans by repeatedly breaking into and feeding from farms or gardens. We may sympathise with the elephant but imagine being continuously afraid to leave your house because of an upset three ton elephant is breaking up the garden you depend on. The upshot is often the death of the mother again and a traumatised baby elephant. In Namunyak, there is another problem. The locals dig wells (up to 15 feet deep) to water their livestock (the famous ‘singing wells’) and elephants are attracted to this water source. Not infrequently small elephants fall into the wells and become trapped and then separated from their herds. The Samburu warriors would rescue the young animals from the well but then be left and would usually die.
Kenya already had an elephant orphanage that aims to rehabilitate and return elephants to the wild but it’s in Nairobi and the animals are ultimately released into the Amboseli reserve. Orphans had been sent from Namunyak to this reserve but the elephants never return to Samburu and elephants have long memories.
Reteti was established in 2016 as a local response to these problems. Now the warriors can call in the help of the their own rangers to help rescue the elephants. When they fall into wells, the rangers will stay with the young, often for several days, to try and reunite the calf with its herd. When this is unsuccessful or when the youngster has been orphaned for other reasons the calf can be taken to the orphanage where it is introduced into a group and raised with them until it can be released with the group as a new family herd. The aim is always to return the animals the wild even though these youngsters may be very traumatised when they first arrive.
Why is this an important initiative? Well, this is a local Samburu led initiative, funding comes currently from a number of international conservation agencies. As such, it provides local employment and training (over 30 jobs currently to care for about a dozen elephant and one rhino) and its becoming an important education resource for local schools. Wildlife conservation is playing an increasingly important economic role in the area and this gives the locals a direct stake. Samburu is a pretty difficult place to eek out a living in and without these connections it’s hypocritical of us to expect them to make substantial sacrifices for the good of the wildlife and our enjoyment.
All that being said. What really struck me was the dedication of the staff to the animals in their care. They are very serious about the importance of these animals, their culture and way of life. They have always lived alongside these wild animals and they have a deep understanding and respect for them. Reteti does want to encourage more visitors to the orphanage and it’s fascinating to see their work. You can find out more from here.