First community owned elephant sanctuary in Africa turns two (Kenya)


Duncan Ndotono, The Star

Date Published

See link for photo.  

A fascinating drive on the Marsabit-Moyale tarmac road, thereafter an exit at Sere Olipi and an enthralling excursion in a wild terrain of wholesome sandy, seasonal river beds, bring you here. I arrive at midday. I am at Reteti.

Tucked in an untamed wilderness, at the foot of magnificent Kitagess to the west, Ndonyo El-Masooti to the east and Reteti Peak hills to the north, Reteti is home to fragile but strong yet-to-be giants.

It is an enclave surrounded by 3,243 square kilometres of Namunyak Community Wildlife Trust located on the vast Samburu county. Namunyak boasts of 5,000-7,000 elephants who roam freely in their natural habitat.

Reteti is the humble abode of 13 elephant calves and baby Loijupu, a black rhino.

This is the first community owned elephant sanctuary in Africa. It will turn two this year. The sanctuary has rescued 38 orphaned or neglected baby elephants plus a rhino since inception.

On arrival, local and international tourists, leaning on upright fortified massive green logs, jostle for space at an elevated concrete meshed platform, overlooking an open space next to one of the two elephant stables.

It is feeding time. The oldest, Shaba, roughly three-and-a-half-years-old, who lost her mother to poachers at Shaba National Reserve, leads the herd of 13 calves. On one end there’s rumble and haste.

On the other, a group of keepers carrying large feeding bottles that hold more than two litres of milk stand next to the tourists.

It takes split seconds. There is contact, and the keeper is pushed back a few yards. Bottle to mouth is followed by contented suckling. This has been the routine since Reteti was born.

“The only rescue, rehabilitation and release to the wild option that the wildlife conservation community had was Nairobi. An estimated 400km from Namunyak Conservancy,” Sammy Leseita, Reteti’s manager, says.

“This was tedious logistically and would distress the rescued wildlife. In addition rescued game was less likely to adapt to [the new] surroundings,”

He said it was imperative that wild animals rescued in the south remained in the south, while those rescued in the north remained in the northern parts of the country.

In the past, there was little cooperation from the community. However, the growth of resilient community conservancies such as Namunyak and 34 others under the umbrella of Northern Rangelands Trust has led to tremendous growth in conservation efforts among local residents.

Northern Rangelands Trust, working hand-in-hand with the communities, has led to much-needed community outreach on the need for conservation, through managerial training, lobbying for donor support and providing impact evaluation results to donors.

The involvement of communities has not only reduced poaching cases but has also increased the all-important eyes and ears on the ground.

“It is women and children left at home and morans grazing cattle across the conservancy who raise the red flag after spotting either an injured animal, abandoned calf or a poaching incident,” Leseita says. 

“We not only heed their call but also work hand-in-hand with all, including the KWS and Northern Rangelands Trust, [leading to] human and wildlife peacefully co-existing with increased success rates.”

Namunyak was the second conservancy to be established and it has had a tremendous impact on the ground. 

Reteti, which employs 47 keepers from the community, is a product of its conservation efforts. Donors include Conservation International, Escape Foundation, M-Pesa Foundation and Tusk Trust, among others.

“For now, we have two stables where the calves sleep, and we are hoping for a third. We have a quarantine shed with a capacity of eight calves. The quarantine shed is crucial to monitor new rescuees to avoid cross infections,” Leseita says. “We also have a tractor and two Land Cruisers, which come in handy [when traversing the] rough terrain.”

In Sarara Valley, Reteti partners with Sarara Camp and Sarara Treehouses, which have a capacity of 32 beds. The proposed Reteti Sanctuary House, with a 12-bed capacity, will be built on Kitagess Hill overlooking the southern part of Reteti Walley.

The advancement will be crucial in sustaining wildlife conservation, and the revenue will be shared with the communities. In addition, Reteti has played a critical role in managing settlements, grazing pattern and helping to console families affected by human-wildlife conflict.

Water plays a crucial role at Reteti. It quenches the thirst of the calves and acts as a coolant at a nearby pool for their tender yet rough coats. The calves engage in a game of push and shove, tumble and roll, huffing and puffing in the pool after feeding.

This is followed by a brisk inhaling of sand and splatter on the underbelly, shoulders and on their back. Most of the calves were left behind by their mothers following human-wildlife conflict, drought, floods or poaching.

With feeding time over, the calves dash back to the open fields.

“Reteti is a key pillar not only for raising community awareness, but also in supporting key ecosystem species, managing human-wildlife conflict, fostering peace to encourage co-existence,” Leseita says, a win-win approach that communities in northern Kenya have embraced.