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Heartwarming story and photos of a baby elephant sanctuary in Kenya

A heartwarming National Geographic article about a baby elephant sanctuary in Northern Kenya has been released by renowned photographer Ami Vitale. For years, the interactions between communities and elephants have been strained. The Samburu regarded these animals as pests that would ruin their harvest and infrastructure.

Now communities in this region are working together to protect the estimated 6,000 elephants that live alongside them. Elephants that used to be left for dead are now being rescued, rehabbed, and released back into their natural habitat. It’s a story about conservation and engaging with communities on a small scale that has the potential for ripples in the future.

The Reteti Elephant Orphanage lies within a 9,750,000 acre swathe of thorny scrubs in northern Kenya, known as the Namunya Wildlife Conservancy. It is part of the ancestral homeland of the Samburu people, who live there. However, Namunyak is endorsed and advised by the Northern Range Lands Trust, a local organization that works with 33 community conservancy groups to boost security, sustainable developments, and wildlife conservation.


The sanctuary has more than 20 elephant keepers who are Samburus, and they’re all trying to return their charges, under a few dozen at present, back to the wild. Feeding is a huge part of the day’s job for the handlers. Half-gallon-sized bottles of the unique formula are given every three hours around the clock, and drinking is a loud, slobbery affair. Afterwards, the elephants fall into an even deeper sleep.

What’s happening here at Reteti, without fanfare, is nothing less than the beginnings of a transformation in how Samburus relate to wild animals they have long feared. This oasis where orphans grow up, learning to become wild so that one day, they can join their herds, is just as much about the people who live there as it is about the elephants.


Elephant orphanages like Reteti are unfortunate consequences of the decimation of Africa’s elephants by ivory p.oac.hers. During the 1970s, northern Kenya was home to many elephants and a dense rhino population, which were h.unt.ed to near extinction for their horns. Elephant numbers are now significantly smaller than they used to be.

The loss of elephants affects other species. Elephants are ecological engineers who feed on low shrubs and bulldoze smaller trees, promoting the growth and distribution of grasses, which then attract large herbivores like buffalo, endangered Grevys’ zebras, elands, and oryxes, themselves prey for predators: lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, leopards.

For pastoralists like Samburu, more green grass means more food for the cattle. One reason indigenous communities have begun to relate to elephants in a new way, they’ve begun seeing them as friends rather than enemies. “We take care of the elephants, and the elephants are taking care of us,” Rimland Lemojong, a Samburu warrior turned elephant caretaker, says. “We now have a relationship between us.”

Shaba, now nearly two years old, is the proxy matriarch of the younger Reteti orphans, teaching them how to forage in the wild. Under the eye of caretakers, she leads her small herd into the bush outside the sanctuary, stripping leaves, tasting bark, pushing down small trees, taking mud baths.