Out of Tragedy, Hope: the Orphans Project


David Daballen, Head of Field Research

Date Published

The Planets were once among the biggest and widest ranging family in Samburu. More than 35 strong, they were led by an old matriarch named Dunia (Earth, in Swahili) who was estimated to have been born in 1948. The family’s troubles started in 2009 when Neptune and, several months later, Gaia and Saturn disappeared together with their youngest calves, suspected poached. Six months later Dunia disappeared as well. In late 2010, Venus was found having been poached within the reserve boundary – the first confirmed poaching inside the protected area boundaries in 13 years. Since then, the Planets have lost almost all of their breeding females.

The Planets are not alone in this nightmare. For families where matriarchs are normally about 40 years old, some the orphans left to lead are as young as 12. This is the reality of many of the families in the reserve as the wave of poaching reached its crescendo in 2012. But in the mingling of blood and tears, there is a ray of hope. Now, through the Orphan Project sponsored by Singer Rankin and WorldWomenWork, we are gaining insight into their lives and how to protect them.

Closely following each orphan family with their known histories will offer unique insight into survival after disruption, and allow us to protect them more effectively. Last year, we began the tedious work of collaring seven carefully selected orphans, among them Luna, the only surviving daughter of Neptune.

After months of marveling at her movements as she walked with her family, trouble struck. Last week, Luna’s collar sent an alarm, which reverberated through the research camp: Luna is moving very slowly.

We left around 6:45am the following morning, because she was too far beyond the reserve for us to reach at night in thick bush. Following her GPS coordinates, we quickly picked up a lot of fresh indicators that elephants had been in the area recently, using the landscape heavily at night and leaving in the morning to avoid the livestock and people. We kept going around until we were able to track down the herd that Luna is usually a part of, but to our disappointment she was not with them, and this concerned us deeply.

Back at base, Gilbert sent us her new position. We returned to our starting point and traced the new coordinates. We circled for 20 minutes. Finally, we spotted some elephants in a very thick bush, with Luna among them. They looked like they were hiding and for a second we panicked. On a closer look, we saw a tiny head and trunk… Luna had just given birth!

We watched with relief. Despite Luna spending much of her time with Alpine of the Flowers family, it was very moving to see her and her baby with the remnants of her family, the Planets. They had stayed with her during the birth, even though it meant giving up the luxury of going down to Ewaso River for water and shade. It was very touching to know that, despite the inexperience of this group, they were willing to support Luna.

So the Planets live on, with that much more hope. Our project will continue to follow these joys, and help them up through the sorrow of losing so much in the fight for survival.