Orphaned as babies, these elephants returned to the wild amid bittersweet tears


When rangers first spotted the 1-month-old elephant, she was roaming around the Samburu region in northern Kenya. She seemed distressed and alone. They could not find her mother, but an elephant carcass, thought to be hers, was spotted nearby.

After rescuers brought the baby elephant later named Kapai to the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, she struck up a close friendship with another elephant calf, Lemorijo, who had been separated from his mother at just 2 months old.

Three more orphaned or abandoned elephants were brought to Reteti over the following two years. They formed a herd, and Kapai became their trusted matriarch, a role that seemed to come naturally because of her affection and guidance of the others. The keepers developed a special attachment to her.

Now, after six years, Kapai and 12 other elephants were finally to be released this month back into the wild.

Reteti, founded in 2016, is the first sanctuary owned and run by members of the local Samburu community that rescues orphaned and abandoned baby elephants and rehabilitates them for “rewilding.” The sanctuary is hosted by the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, pristine wilderness encompassing more than 850,000 acres.

“Elephants have strong cultural imprints in the Samburu community, so the community leaders wanted a safe home for the orphans here,” said Naserian Loronyokie, 28, Namunyak’s communications manager.

Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya is the first Indigenous-owned and operated elephant sanctuary in Africa. (Video: Ami Vitale/For The Washington Post)

Reteti’s approach to caring for the elephants has proven innovative. The keepers have significantly improved the animals’ health by shifting away from powdered milk formula and raised their chances of survival in the wild by letting them mature longer before releasing them.

“We are their mums and dads,” said elephant keeper Russia Lenanyokie, 28, adding that “the aim is to have them strong and independent so that they can go back to their natural homes.”

By chance, the keepers at Reteti made a major discovery four years ago.

When women in the Samburu community do not have enough milk after childbirth, they traditionally give their babies goat milk. Some of the keepers had been raised on goat milk, and so they tried it on Sera, an orphaned female elephant. As the days went by, Sera started to get healthier. And so did others who were later given goat milk.

Katie Rowe, who worked with the nutrition team, came up with nutritional additives. Babies’ survival rate jumped from 50 percent to 98 percent, she said.

“And not only that, all that money that was going out to foreign multinational companies, hundreds of thousands of dollars, is now staying within the community,” Rowe said.

Samburu women supply Reteti with up to 500 liters of goat milk a day. “They also want the best for the elephants, especially the women, because in Samburu culture, the wild animals belong to the women,” said ranger Edrina Letiwa, 29.

About 1,250 have set up bank accounts, some for the first time, and now can pay their children’s school fees.

In the past, rewilding elephants could be traumatic, both to experience and to observe. The elephant would be shot with a tranquilizer dart, shoved into a crate and transported for many hours before being released into a new, unfamiliar setting.

During previous Reteti releases of orphaned elephants, all about 4 years old, two were eaten by lions, and another died of hunger.

This time, Reteti was to do it differently.

The rewilding was put off until the elephants were more mature, ages 7 through 9, thus larger and better able to care for themselves. The program conducted a “soft release” at the Namunyak Conservancy, so that Kapai’s herd would interact with other elephants ahead of time and become familiar with the terrain and places to find water.

Prolonged droughts because of climate change have left water scarce. Not only have elephants been dying of thirst — several calves were orphaned for this reason — but they have also been falling into the deeper wells that people are forced to dig, at times leaving young elephants separated from their mothers.

The keepers had developed a special relationship feeding the elephants over the years. “When you feed an animal, they start liking you and finally get comfortable to a point of loving you,” said keeper Naomi Leshongoro. “And when love is reciprocated, it becomes beautiful.”

But that relationship had to end. The elephants were gradually weaned off the goat milk and human contact sharply limited.

Leshongoro was among the first keepers to work at Reteti and cared for Kapai and Lemorijo. The trustees of her village, knowing she could use the job to help her impoverished family, chose her as a keeper when the community decided to establish Reteti.

The orphaned elephants soothed her, she said, even in her worst moments, like when she thought about her brother who disappeared long ago.

“The elephants replace so much that is lost in me, ” she said. “Seeing them happy and free makes me feel better and hopeful for my own future, that life can become better.”

In the days before the release, Leshongoro and Dorothy Lowakutuk sang to the herd and patted their backs, savoring the final moments. The keepers feared for them, yet they wanted them back in the wild where they belonged.

Thirteen orphaned elephants at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary were given their last bottle of goat milk before being returned to the wild. (Video: Ami Vitale/For The Washington Post)

“I love them all. I might have favorites; parents know who they love most, but they don’t say,” Lowakutuk said. “They become a part of you when you have slept next to them, soothed them to sleep and raised them. It feels like letting go of your children.”

On the last day, Leshongoro held Kapai, massaging her thick hide. Kapai rumbled.

Kapai and a dozen others in her herd were finally released last week, on June 21.

Samburu women came for the ceremony dressed in traditional attire, some with elephant prints and beaded jewelry around their necks. They sang to mark the moment. A village elder offered a prayer for protection of the elephants as they left their hold. The community members, hands folded, chanted in unison, “Nkai, Nkai, Nkai,” invoking God to answer their prayers.

The herd covered a lot of ground over the following days, walking about 60 miles during the first two. The elephants reached a large forest with ample water and food and connected with another wild herd. Rangers and elephant guardians closely monitored their progress.

By early this week, Kapai’s herd had moved into the mountains, safely away from humans. Food and water were aplenty. It was the perfect way to start their new lives.

But parting had been bittersweet.

Thirteen elephants who were rehabilitated for years at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya were released into the wild on June 21 as elephant keepers waved goodbye. (Video: Ami Vitale/For The Washington Post)

When it had been time to leave Reteti’s care, Lemorijo and most of the other elephants had run out of the hold without looking back. Kapai had been the last to depart. She lingered for almost a minute, while the keepers around her sobbed. The rangers had tried to push her out to join the others, but she stood still. She stretched out her trunk to the keepers and rumbled.

Leshongoro and Lowakutuk waved, eyes puffy.

“I will miss them. They will be fine. I know they will,” Leshongoro said as she wiped a tear.

After years of being cared for at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, 13 elephants were released back into the wild. (Video: Ami Vitale/For The Washington Post)



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