New home for hand-reared orphaned elephant calves

Four orphaned elephant calves are re-introduced to the wild of Sera Community Sanctuary in Laikipia from Reteti Community Sanctuary in Samburu County. [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

Four rescued orphaned elephant calves have been re-introduced to their natural environment after a successful weaning process by the Reteti Community Sanctuary.

The calves were released into their new home at Sera Wildlife Conservancy in Laikipia County.

The four - Loisaba, Baawa, Lchurai and Nadasoit - were moved to Sera after the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) scientists approved the sanctuary as a suitable “home” for the hand-reared calves.

This is due to Sera’s proximity to Reteti. Considered too was its perfect security as the sanctuary has a perimeter fence that keeps at bay large predators such as lions.

Other preferences that made Sera Rhino Sanctuary an ideal home for the young elephants were that it has an enhanced security team comprising KWS rangers and community scouts, in addition to minimal human activity. The elephant population in the sanctuary is also not a large one.

Reteti manager Moses Lenaipa said the translocation process was agreed on after KWS scientists completed an ecological assessment of the area and determined that the conditions were optimal for the reintroduction.

Perfect sanctuary

Lenaipa said the recent rains have provided a variety of forage as well as surface water and full waterholes for the four elephants. The calves were released in perfect health.

“This brings to 10 the number of calves that have been successfully released from Reteti, and we are proud and thrilled to share this widely, being the only community-owned and managed elephant sanctuary in Kenya,” he said.

The manager said this is the third release of hand-reared elephants into the Sera Sanctuary since Reteti was established in 2016. Sera is also a community-run sanctuary. The two are part of the larger Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy.

“Barely three and a half years since launching Reteti, we feel proud of what the sanctuary has achieved in the rescue and release of orphaned elephant calves,” said Lenaipa, adding that the establishment would continue to build partnerships with stakeholders in conservation.

Loisaba, Baawa, Lchurai and Nadasoit were selected for this latest release because of their age. They are aged between three and four years and have been weaned off their special milk formula.

“They have also gained valuable experience in the bush guided by their handlers, and were in great physical condition at the time of release,” said Lenaipa.

He said in the build-up to the release, the calves were familiarised with their travel crate and fitted with GPS tracking collars. This process, he said, was carried out in partnership with KWS personnel who developed the post-release monitoring strategy.

"This will enable the monitoring and documentation of the elephants' health, safety and integration,” said Lenaipa.

“KWS is proud of its veterinary team that has worked in partnership with Reteti to ensure the calves were rescued most humanely and professionally, given the required medical care and nurtured with the highest animal welfare standard,” said Simon Gitau, Assistant Director of Mountain Conservation Area.

According to Antony Wandera, Senior Research and Monitoring officer, Northern Rangelands Trust, the four elephants will be monitored closely for learning purposes.

“The close follow-up will help us to continuously improve the welfare of the elephants and the rewilding process,” said the officer.

Bawa, now three and a half years old, was rescued from Nga’bolo after he was found abandoned and stuck in the mud at four months old. “It took a long time for handlers and KWS vet team to wean him back to health,” said Lenaipa.

Loisaba, three years and four months old now, was found wondering by Loisaba Conservancy rangers at eight months. He was orphaned by the tough drought at the time, but endured to regain strength and be finally released to the wild.

Lchurai, another victim of the drought, was rescued at the Lchurai (after which he is named) area of Laikipia, stressed and traumatised at nine months old. However, the professional handling at the sanctuary made him fit for the wild release, aged three years and seven months old.

Close monitoring

Lastly, Nadasoit was the youngest to arrive at the sanctuary at only three weeks old. He was found in a community well at Naunyak Community Conservancy.

“She had taken a lot of water and was sick with pneumonia, but she proved to be a tough girl and found her way to good health by the time of release at three years and two months old,” said Lenaipa.

The two earlier releases saw Warges, Lingwezi and Sosian reintroduced to the wild in May 2019 while Shaba, Pokot and Mpala were released in November 2019.

“Their release was quite successful as they are currently spending time with wild herds in the area and living without any human contact at all,” said Naomi Leshonguro, one of the longest-serving handlers at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary and the first woman elephant handler in Kenya.

David Daballen, head of field operations at the Save the Elephants organization, says data on elephants in the wild released in 2019 shows orphaned jumbos are increasingly integrating with wild ones.

“The data shows their range overlaps with wild elephants with whom they share water points and are often in close contact,” says Daballen, adding that the organisation is pleased with the progress of the orphans.

"We look forward to watching them grow to mature males and females and eventually feed on the fenced environment of Sera Rhino Sanctuary to be truly wild."