Like all the best stories, this is a tale of the triumph of good over evil. The evil lies in man’s desire to harm animals for the sake of money. The good manifests in the lengths to which ordinary people will go to save their fellow creatures. It’s a tale of courage and trust. And a reminder as to the power of chance. It’s also a celebration of Kenya’s own journey towards the establishment of a world-leading brand of sustainable community conservation.
The story begins in the arid north of Kenya, a land of drought, rust-red dust, searing heat and one of the least visited mountain ranges on the planet – the mighty Matthews Range. Until recently, when a team of international scientists ventured into the Matthews Range and uncovered more than 100 species of plants and animals that had never been recorded before, including tiny rats, bats and butterflies, the Matthews lay beautifully undiscovered. A sleeping beauty rising to
2,688 meters above sea level, the Matthews divide the virtual desert of what used to be known as the Northern Frontier District, from the more lavish plains of Laikipia. And so isolated were these mountains, that the evolution of their flora and fauna took place in a vacuum – what scientists call a ‘sky island’ – a remote patch of tropical highland forests that has evolved free of influence for over 10 millennia.
As with most lost islands, the Matthews Range is a realm of magic and mystique. It’s a place of juniper forests as old as time. A place where rare de Brazza monkeys swing and gorgeous Hartlaub’s turaco flash through the vaulted gloom in a glory of iridescent green. It’s a sanctuary for massive cycads, which are monstrous ferns, once dinosaur fodder, that have flourished for 250 million years. And it was in the Matthews Range, until 1990, that the last of Kenya’s black rhino roamed; and where great herds of elephants roam still. But it was also here, where three small elephants got into very big trouble.
The first of the trio, Warges, is named after the highest peak in the Matthews. When he was only four-years-old he lost his mother to a poacher and, utterly traumatized, he attempted to join a new herd. As it happens, his adopted herd had decided to scale the Matthews Range. So Warges followed. But somewhere along the way he was attacked. And so it was that he descended the mountain with a spear wound in one ear, alone, emaciated and without hope. Somehow, however, he made his way to the gates of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the only place within many hundreds of miles where the kind of help he required was available. It was a miracle. But elephants are good at miracles and often present themselves on an elephantine whim to those who they somehow sense will help them. Warges was no exception, he was taken in, given shelter, medical attention and (most important of all to baby elephants) love. And he thrived. Or to put it in the words of his keepers he emerged from his trauma as ‘a happy-go-lucky, friendly big brother to the other elephants, with an insatiable appetite’.
Sosian also lost his mother to a poacher’s gun when he was three. And, though he arrived at the gates of the Reteti Sanctuary physically unharmed, he was caked in his mother’s blood and, unsurprisingly, traumatised and confused. Indeed, such was the degree of his misery that all the other elephants spent the night waving their trunks through the wooden slats of their stalls trying to comfort him. And his cries echoed through the night causing the local rangers to report unusual agitation in the elephant herds of the region on the following morning. Painful though his start in life had been, however, Sosian was brave, and he adjusted well to his life with his new herd. He also became firm friends with Warges and, according to his keepers, developed a passion for mud baths.
Lingwesi was found wandering, painfully thin, on the Il Ngwesi Community Conservancy in Laikipia. He had been separated from his herd at the age of eight months, but the local rangers had waited and watched to see if he would survive without intervention. When it became clear that he would not, they delivered him to Reteti where he was given the usual cocktail of food, love and elephant company. He made an excellent recovery, put on weight and, according to his keepers, ‘showed his playful side’. He also formed an unbreakable friendship with Warges and Sosian.
It took many months of planning with the Kenya Wildlife Service before the good people at Reteti deemed the young trio ready for release into the wild. A special site was chosen on the Sera Community Conservancy where there was good security, low predator density and a monitoring infrastructure already well-established thanks to the presence of a community-run black rhino sanctuary. When they arrived, the three young bulls were released into a large temporary holding pen with shade, water, a mud bath and space to browse. Thereafter they were monitored to see how they adjusted to the new sights and smells of the area while the keepers continued to feed them with giant baby bottles. Originally it had been thought that the trio would remain penned for a week, but in three days they seemed keen to venture out into the wild.
And so they set forth.
The release was a complete success. Though followed by their keepers (armed with monster milk bottles) the young elephants took to the wilderness with gusto showing no inclination to return to their pens to sleep at night. Now, one month later, they are fitted with radio tracking collars and feeding themselves. They’re also travelling around 14 kilometres a day – which is a long way for a small elephant.
Best of all, the rangers of the area have reported that the three friends are three no more – they’ve been accepted by the other elephants of Sera – and are back within the warmth of the greater family they once lost.
About the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary
Located on the Ngilai West Group Ranch on the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Samburu County, the Reteti Sanctuary was established to rescue any orphaned or abandoned elephant calves found in the northern regions. Once rescued the sanctuary is committed to making every effort to reunite the calves with their families. If this is not possible, the elephants will be kept in the centre and provided with round-the-clock care, though the ultimate aim will always be to release the calf back into the wild. Visits to the sanctuary can be arranged and there are a number of accommodation options within this beautiful area.
For further information: www.retetielephants.org