Rescuing Samburu Land … and Elephants

Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak Conservancy, Kenya
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Late afternoon sunbeams illuminated the massive rock, giving it an otherworldly glow. It was a few minutes before I realized that the rock was a memorial of some kind. It was skillfully painted with the portrait of an elephant who looked as if he was about to step out of the rock like a returning warrior ready to reclaim his land.

Three Samburu warriors and guides standing in front of Elephant Rock, painted with a portrait of Boris, a local bull elephant, Namunyak Valley, Kenya.jpg

Our mini-tribe of ten American and Canadian travelers was invited to wander behind the rock by our Samburu warrior guides. “There’s a lesson about Elephant Rock,” Kevin told us as we seated ourselves on boulders beneath the behemoth. Once we settled down, Kevin shared his tale.

“You see, we have another mega-tribe called the Somali. They used to come here, and they were killing our elephants and our rhinos. When they killed elephants, they used to come here to hide the ivory. And when they killed rhinos, they put their horns there. And when they killed giraffes, they put the meat here and spent the night here. And those guys were forcing our young boys to go and take those ivories and bring them here. So it was like slaving.”

View underneath Elephant Rock, where poachers used to hide their ivory and rhino horn, Namunyak Valley, Kenya

Beyond a few murmurs, like a congregation muttering amen in agreement, we became quiet listening to the anger, sadness and resolve that lay behind Kevin’s story.

He told us that the Samburu lands were down to fewer than ten elephants and about a dozen giraffes at the height of the poaching in the 1970s and 80s. After a huge international outcry, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade in ivory in 1989. That’s when Kenya established the Kenya Wildlife Service.

A spectacular recovery

I had heard about the devastation caused by poaching earlier that morning from Kerry Outram, assistant manager of the Sarara Treehouses lodge.

Kerry Outram, assistant manager of Sarara Treehouses lodge, Namunyak Valley, Kenya

As we sat on the patio overlooking the peaceful Namunyak Valley, she explained that the area had always been very rich in wildlife with healthy rhino and elephant populations. The greater Sarara Valley adjacent to Kenya’s Matthews Range was a crossroads for herds of elephants traversing between Mt. Kenya and a distant river to the north toward Somalia.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, the porous Kenya-Somalia border provided opportunities for well-organized, highly skilled Somali gangs to cross over into Kenya, poaching rhino horn for Asian customers seeking aphrodisiacs and elephant tusks for ivory.

The turnaround in the elephant population has been spectacular, and the Samburu people and the Sarara lodges and foundation have been instrumental in the changes. Kerry, a fourth-generation British Kenyan, described how it all came together. “The founders of the Sarara Foundation, Piers and Hillary Bastard, had been coming to Namunyak for about 15 years in the early sixties, bringing people for photo safaris in makeshift camps. Then came the Somali poacher movement, which made life very difficult for the Samburu people. There was no wildlife, no rhinos, no elephants,” she said. Piers, Hillary and their intrepid clients stayed away.

“After security was restored, Piers and Hillary returned to see how things were going. They decided to move back to help the community restore the land.” Piers had lots of Samburu friends. Together with community elders, the group formulated a loose plan for conservation and training local rangers. Low-key funding came from friends who had been on safari.

“The community was a hundred percent committed to getting things right for themselves, to get their lives back on track,” notes Kerry. The next step was creating income for the Samburu community. That’s where the lodges come in. The Samburu community has full ownership of the lodges, which are managed with renewable leases by the Sarara Foundation. It’s complicated, but it works. The Samburu people are an integral part of the conservation infrastructure … and we the guests are also an integral part of the ecosystem.

Kevin, Samburu warrior and guide at Sarara Treehouses lodge, Namunyak Valley, Kenya

Before we left Elephant Rock, Kevin explained how the community’s involvement developed: “In 1995, they had the idea of employing Samburu warriors to act as rangers. They got a partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, and that’s where they got the weapons and help. The wildlife service gave them guns to chase all the poachers away from this land. Because our warriors know where people live, they went to where the poachers live and cleared the poachers away. Now, there is no poaching here. That’s why Elephant Rock is in memory of the lost elephants.”

Kerry believed that using the warriors as rangers was “an effective way of keeping tabs on what’s happening. They’re naturally rangers. They’ve grown up in the bush, they know the animals, they know their habits. They’re phenomenal trackers and incredible spotters. It just makes sense to have the ranger team formed from the community.” As we learned later in our trip, developing teams of local rangers is a formula that is working throughout Kenya’s national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and conservancies.

In case you’re keeping track, the national elephant population of Kenya has increased by more than five percent annually from a low of 16,000 in 1989 to the current count of more than 36,000 elephants nationally.

But wildlife preservation is just part of the story. In addition to conservation efforts and hospitality, the Sarara Foundation has created four Montessori schools that are integrated with the Samburu people’s semi-nomadic lifestyle, and has funded a mobile clinic with two qualified nurses that regularly visits Samburu villages, to provide primary health care.

But the pride and joy of the Samburu people and the Sarara Foundation is the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary.

Welcome to Retiti Elephant Sanctuary sign on black rock, Namunyak, Kenya

Reteti Elephant Sanctuary

We set out for Reteti before the heat dissipated for the day. Feeding the baby elephants took place at 3 pm sharp, and it was about an hour away from Sarara Treehouses. We bounced along the familiar route down into the valley, across dry creek beds and past herds of camels owned by the Samburu people before we reached the gate.

Samburu warriors and guides, Paul (left) and Kevin in the front seat of a Land Cruiser at the gate of the Retiti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

We were greeted by Dorothy Lowakutuk, one of the first women in East Africa to become an elephant keeper. When she started seven years ago, she was one of just three women taking care of orphaned elephants, “and now we are 15 ladies,” Dorothy told us with great pride before the elephants came into the enclosure for their bottle feeding.

Elephant keeper Dorothy Lowakutuk at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

The Reteti sanctuary was started in 2016. Katie Rowe, the wife of Jeremy Bastard (Piers and Hillary’s son, who is now CEO of the Sarara Foundation), was one of the forces behind the sanctuary. “We were responding to what we saw as a huge need. It was a time when a lot of elephants were being orphaned to human-wildlife conflict and poaching. There was also drought, so a lot of elephants were being lost,” Katie told me over dinner later that night. If a nursing mom died or was injured, the baby elephant would have no sustenance and was likely to die as well.

Little elephant running to the left at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

“That was the spark,” said Katie. “There were lots of people involved before it fell into place. But it did take years.”

The big issue for the community was that the only sanctuary that rescued baby elephants in Kenya was Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi. Sheldrick released the orphans it rescued to the Tsavo Conservation Area in southeastern Kenya, far away from Samburu lands. The community wanted the elephants they rescued to join herds in their local area. Thus Reteti was born.

Parade of young elephants coming into the compound for their feeding at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

When the babies came into the corral for their feeding, it was easy to see why the community wanted to keep these babies on Samburu lands. The first group ranged from nine months to about 15 months old. They were beyond adorable.

A wide view of the feeding compound with a row of keepers with milk bottles to feed juvenile elephants at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

The second group of elephants to come into the compound were between two to four years old. They enjoyed splashing in the pool and rolling in the mud.

Baby elephant splashing in a pool, facing camera with ears wide, at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

The eldest elephants did not come out because the Reteti keepers were reducing their contact with humans. “We have stopped feeding them milk because they are in a weaning process,” said Dorothy. They are allowed to graze outside and to interact with the wild elephants nearby. Reteti elephants are released at about seven years old, when they are strong enough to chase predators away. Currently Reteti is caring for about 43 elephants.

After the feeding, we were invited inside the kitchen, where Dorothy explained  more about the process of rescuing and raising baby elephants.

“Elephants are migrant animals. They move from place to place, depending on the season,” she said. “When one place is dry, they move to another place. They never forget. They keep memories for life. We believe that one day they’ll go back to their right families.”

Close up parade of juvenile elephants entering the compound for feeding at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

Some of the stories of the rescued elephants are amazing. Long’uro, who was rescued about four years ago, has no trunk. We wondered if he can ever be released. “We are still learning about what he can do by himself and what he can’t do,” she said, describing how he kneels down to drink and how he positions himself to get showers when the other elephants spray themselves to cool off. Dorothy was cautiously optimistic about his prospects.

The elephants at Reteti are fed four times a day. “We have people working both day and night shifts. It’s always working hours here,” she laughed. The sanctuary has 130 people with permanent jobs, including seven keepers and some management.

A young woman keeper feeding juvenile elephants close up at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

In addition, Reteti employs 1,200 village women who have been supplying goat milk to the sanctuary since 2020 during the double whammy of the Covid formula shortage and drought. “It has been life transforming because those women now have power. We have opened bank accounts for them. It started as a trial, and now they are running small businesses in the village, educating their kids and feeding their families very well,” said Dorothy. Counting all the family members, the arrangement is providing food for more than seven thousand people and keeping the community above the poverty level.

A dozen or more milk bottles for feeding baby elephants at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

Why goat’s milk? According to Dorothy, it’s 90 percent similar to elephant milk. Both animals browse and graze, so their diet is similar. The goat milk is supplemented to bring it up to the calorie level needed by the elephants. Supplements include desiccated coconut, whey protein, spirulina and vitamins.

As our group interview came to a close, Dorothy told us a little about herself. She was almost finished with her certificate in community development and social work when she heard that Retiti was interviewing. She started working in the kitchen with Katie Rowe. “She trained me how to be very strong,” recalled Dorothy. One day she got an opportunity to feed the elephants. “It blew me all through. I stayed there for so long, trying to talk to him. That’s how I got so connected.”

Dorothy Lowakutuk, one of the first women keepers at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Namunyak, Kenya

And now? “I don’t think I’ll go away from this place. I’ll always wish to live with elephants because elephants are my babies, elephants are my nephews,” she said with deep affection and wonder at making such a close connection with the animals that are so integral to her tribal lands.

Back in the Land Cruisers, we thought we were heading back to Sarara Treehouses. It was only after visiting Reteti that our Samburu guides took us to see Elephant Rock and told us in detail about the poaching that went on for so many years.

Boris, the prized bull elephant in Samburu County, Kenya

Ian stood in front of the rock and explained that what we were looking at was a portrait of Boris, the bull elephant we had “met” on our dawn ride that morning. Everything was connected, even our place as visitors in this amazing land.

Credits

The Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, is Africa’s first community owned and operated animal sanctuary.

Elephant Rock was painted in one day by the muralist and conservation artist Mantra from a photograph made by National Geographic wildlife photographer Ami Vitale. Ami says that the Samburu elders living here guided the artists to a place that holds powerful symbolism. The rock that was once used by poachers is now a community gathering place. Her concept was to create something both meaningful and ephemeral. The painting, created with water-based paints, will not last forever. The memories, however, will live on.

Our trip leader was Kathy Karn, wildlife photographer and conservationist from the Toronto area. Her website, Kathy Karn Photographer is a treasure trove of photos and inspiring stories.

Ryan Snider of Socially Responsible Safaris worked with Kathy to organize the logistics for our trip.

The Sarara Foundation runs three ecotourism lodges with the Samburu people to protect the natural resources of the Namunyak Conservancy in central Kenya.

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16 Comments

  1. This is an amazing story of how responsible determined passionate people can defeat criminal destruction…. Thank you for bringing this to us in your always clear descriptive way …. It’s full of hope and inspiration ….

    Reply
    • Thank you Susan. The people were amazing … and so open to us. It was a real pleasure.

      Reply
  2. Amazing story and photos, thank you!

    Reply
    • Thanks Molly.

      Reply
  3. Love the article and the photos! The Samburu people are amazing. Loved the Samburu people we met as well. Clients go to Africa for the wildlife and always come back loving the people.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you also had a chance to experience the Samburu people. They are great ambassadors for their way of life.

      Reply
  4. A very heartening read.

    Reply
    • Thank you Freni. There seems to be a real connection between Kenya and India.

      Reply
  5. This was a breath taking and gripping read. What an amazing experience, to witness first hand how both the elephant and human community are thriving together.

    Reply
    • Im so glad you enjoyed the post, Carolyn. You would really enjoy the experience.

      Reply
  6. WOW. You beautifully an amazing and memorable experience

    Reply
    • Glad you enjoyed it Jim.

      Reply
    • Thank you David. Much appreciated.

      Reply
  7. A wonderful account of hope, conservation and restoration Ellen. Reteti and the Samburu are close to my heart, I can hardly wait to return.

    Reply
    • Kathy, thank you for sharing your wonderful Kenya … and your true love of the land and the people with us.

      Reply

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