Moving with grace

July 15, 2023
Rescuing and rewilding elephants

“Elephants will remember you all their life – I love their intelligence, their cleverness and their strong memory.” – Edwin Lusichi, head keeper, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Elephants are nature’s gentle giants. Their matriarchal energy is so powerful that a deep reverence washes over you in their presence. When I am out in the wild watching these giants in silence, I reflect on what the world would look like if humans moved around this planet with such grace, elegance and care. How would it feel? What kind of children would we raise if we had such empathy, sensitivity, intelligence, memory and respect?

These deeply sensitive, playful, intelligent mammals are the master architects of the bush. Their ability to spread seeds, create water troughs and clear pathways for other animals with their feet and trunks are essential building blocks for biodiversity. But these sentient creatures are often misunderstood. And sadly, years of drought throughout much of East Africa, coupled with a meteoric rise in the human population, are encroaching upon wilderness areas and ancient migration routes. This rapid expansion puts all wildlife, particularly elephants, under great duress with sharp spikes in human-wildlife conflict.

Conservationists, rangers, organizations like the Kenya Wildlife Service and Save the Elephants, rehabilitative sanctuaries and, most importantly, local communities are banding together to protect this keystone species. Many of you will be familiar with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, a longtime bastion of conservation and the world’s first-ever elephant orphanage, but perhaps fewer know of Reteti? This groundbreaking sanctuary in northern Kenya is a pioneer of grassroots conservation. It’s the first elephant sanctuary wholly owned and operated by local Samburu people, championing the rising belief that conservation needs to start from the ground up.

Cause and effect: community-led conservation

Seventy percent of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside the country’s national parks and reserves. For elephants, their size, appetite and the ancient migratory patterns embedded in their consciousness create a complex matrix exacerbated by swelling human populations, climate change and an ever-shrinking wilderness. With less food available and new infrastructure like highways and farms interrupting those annual migratory journeys, crop raiding and human-wildlife conflict have become a sad inevitability. To imagine a world without elephants is simply unbearable, and their decline in numbers from 5 million just 100 years ago to 450,000 today is devastating. Without support from the communities living closest to these animals, the future of conservation is futile. But all is not lost. 

Founded in 2016, Reteti’s impact is extraordinary and multi-faceted. With all staff recruited from the local community, this community-led approach has sparked drastic social, cultural and economic change for local Samburu women. Many of these women now work with the elephants as keepers and tend to the goats that provide nutritious milk for these thirsty orphans – which guzzle up to 24 liters daily. This endeavor is a living example of our vision statement “If African women rise, wildlife will thrive!” 

This switch to goats’ milk has deeper reverberations for the community, generating essential income. Reteti receives support from the Northern Rangelands Trust, which exists to develop community conservancies run by Kenyans, fostering peace and prosperity for local people. Today, the Trust has 43 member conservancies encompassing 19 tribes spread across 24,324 square miles. The understanding and respect that Reteti’s initiatives have built between livestock farmers, locals and elephants are transforming the trajectory for elephants in this region.

Elephants in Kenya

Education holds the key

Further south, one finds the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (SWT). Many of you have visited and generously supported this animal haven over the years. Carrying forward the legacy of compassion and care set in stone by SWT’s founder, the late Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick, is head keeper Edwin Lusichi.

Like so many of the conservationists we admire, Edwin’s path to protecting wildlife was not linear. In fact, his exposure to the wild came later in early adulthood. For many Africans, their experience of wildlife is rooted in fear or in the loss of their food source. Edwin believes “education is key”. The SWT, like Reteti, focuses heavily on community outreach. A staggering 24,000 Kenyan school children visit the orphanage every year. These children witness baby elephants in a relaxed state, splashing in the mud and hungrily drinking warm milk from their keeper’s bottles. At the same time, Edwin teaches them about the many characteristics we share with these playful creatures – from love and deep affection to their need for nurture and contact. The SWT arranges field trips into Tsavo National Park, introducing children to the wilderness and wildlife that are part of their cultural heritage and helping to breed the next generation of conservationists.

As with all things worth fighting for, caring for these orphans is far from easy, and the rewilding process takes years. “The most challenging part is when we bring them in,” Edwin explains. “Most of these baby elephants have been found all alone, starving or injured. They want to charge you, but you need to be very gentle. You don’t want to add to their trauma.” The keeper’s actions in those first early days of rescue determine the trajectory, and Edwin is on call 24 hours a day. 

Elephants in Kenya

The ancient wisdom of elephants

Thanks to the outreach of both Reteti and the SWT, and the community involvement championed by Dr Lucy King, the behavior of farmers and herders is changing. Equipped with the right tools, those affected by crop raids or distressed elephants will call rescue services instead of fighting back. Elephant crop raids are being tackled with Dr King’s Elephants and Bees Project. This initiative strings beehive fences around farmland to peacefully push away elephants who cannot stand the buzzing noise of the bees. These fences have reduced crop raiding by 80% in the Tsavo region and generated income for local women who sell the honey. 

Elephants have roamed freely across our planet for 55 million years. We have so much to learn from the ancient wisdom of these gentle giants. I asked Edwin what he loves most about the elephants he’s cared for over the last two decades. “My favorite part of this work is seeing the elephants return to the wild. When they reach that stage of reintroduction, I’m the happiest man. I have achieved what I wanted to do, and I feel all the joy that comes with that.”

We share so much more of our inherent humanity than we realize with wildlife. It’s imperative we do everything in our power to protect these treasures. I encourage you to travel to Africa as much as you can and spend time in the presence of these gentle giants – they will move you in ways you never dreamt possible.


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