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When elephants fall into deep holes, they often get trapped.
Unfortunately, in drought-ridden Kenya, nomadic ranchers frequently have to dig deep holes to find water for both themselves and their livestock. And at night, thirsty elephants seek out these wells. The adults, with great long trunks, have little problem reaching the water, but the junior, inexperienced elephants can tumble in. If the animals can’t be pulled out, the elephants are forced to abandon their young.
Over a dozen of these abandoned elephants now live at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, being taken on daily walks into the woods and fed milk with bottles. It’s a unique form of conservation, where the local Samburu people — a semi-nomadic pastoralist group — collectively owns, manages, and profits from tourists that visit the 3,400-acre property.
Caring for the young elephants — who grow to be the largest land animals on Earth — is a dramatic departure for the Samburu, who once feared the giant, intelligent animals.
“A typical Samburu has never been close to the elephants,” Sammy Lemoonga, the Harvard-educated head of the sanctuary who was raised as a nomadic rancher, said in an interview.
Historically, the Samburu stayed away from the elephants to avoid conflict.
People and elephants have a long history that includes people killing elephants, and sometimes, elephants trampling people, Lemoonga said.
Conservation International, an environmental organization that promotes biodiversity, has captured footage of the Samburu raising orphaned elephants, thirsty elephants seeking out well water, and a lone African lioness capturing a wildebeest outside the sanctuary.
A short-documentary called My Africa, released Monday and narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, along with a virtual reality experience, illustrates the sanctuary’s unexpected conservation story.
Rescuing elephants may turn out to be profitable for the Samburu. Presently, the eco-tourism industry in Kenya is doing quite well, Richard Vigne, director of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where the last male northern white rhino recently succumbed to old age and illness, said in an interview. Many wildlife conservancies, like Ol Pejeta, rely heavily on tourism to sustain themselves — and protect their wildlife.
There is already a well-established orphan elephant program in Kenya, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which has reintroduced some 200 elephants back into the wild, showing it can be done.
Vigne said if the two-year-old Reteti Elephant Sanctuary can successfully prepare abandoned elephants for the wild — while also generating money for conservation — it could prove to be a positive endeavor.
It’s also likely that more baby elephants will be abandoned in the area, and the culprit is severe drought.
“The majority of elephant and human-wildlife conflict happens when there’s a drought,” said Lemoonga, referring to the elephants seeking deep holes, dug to find water during severe droughts.
Although a deluge of rain hit Kenya in April, the country has been mired in a drought for around four years. In February 2017, the Kenyan government declared a national drought emergency.
Generally, elephants in this part of Kenya aren’t poached for their tusks, Lemoonga said, because people have a livelihood in ranching. Of the 14 orphaned elephants at the sanctuary, 13 were orphaned after falling into the primitive wells, not because their mothers were killed.
Extreme droughts are likely to be a continuing story in Kenya, and the greater Horn of Africa.
“What we’ve seen for the past several decades is a decline in rainfall especially during the longer rainy season,” Jessica Tierney, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona, said in an interview. Tierney published a study on past and future rainfall in the region in 2015.
“In fact, that decline has been more severe than at any time in the last 1,000 years,” she said. “So, that raises some concern in terms of what the future holds for rainfall in the Horn of Africa.”
The Samburu are preparing for more abandoned elephants, whether they’re rescued from wells or left alone after poachers kill their mothers. The Samburu are also building more housing for guests, which at $800 a night per bed, “brings in plenty of money,” said Lemoonga.
This doesn’t just support elephants, which are fed milk infused with vitamins and other nutrients. It also supports the Samburu themselves with medical care, scholarships, and infrastructure.
Although the elephants are an attractive eco-tourism opportunity, the Samburu won’t keep the animals. They’ve developed a plan to “rewild” the elephants, Lemoonga said.
At age four or five, they will be permanently brought out of their stables and brought to a rewilding site in the sanctuary, where they’ll be weaned off their bottles and increasingly made to rely upon natural vegetation.
The young elephants are already walked through their natural environs each day and fed some natural food, in preparation for their future release.
At the Samburu sanctuary, wild African animals that happen to pass through — giraffes, bison, and elephants — all realize they’re safe, even though there’s no fence or boundaries distinguishing the true wilderness from the sanctuary, said Lemoonga.
“When you see wild elephants in the sanctuary they’re very calm and friendly,” he said. “Same with the giraffes.”
This is a new experience for both the elephants and the Samburu people, two groups who once actively avoided each other. Today, as water becomes increasingly scarce, they may come to depend on one another ever more.