‘Rhino whisperer’ who nurses abandoned animals to health

Salome Lemalasia and black rhino, Loijipu, at Sera Community Conservancy in Samburu County. [Courtesy]

Wildlife protection is seen as a risky job but deep in the northern rangelands in Samburu County, women are changing the narrative.

We meet Salome Lemalasia, 30, a rhino keeper, at Sera Community Conservancy, going about her duties unperturbed by the danger that lies deep in the wild.

She calls out for four-year-old black rhino, Loijipu, that is busy browsing away shrubs at the foot of a hill. But the animal fails to come forcing the ranger to go for it. Salome and the rhino have a special bond and it is evident as they play on their way to the water point.

As we move closer, the rhino snorts but Salome calms it down. Interestingly, the animal responds when Salome issues instructions in Kiswahili.

The mother of four, started taking care of Loijipu when he was seven months old.

Rangers found the rhino abandoned by its mother when he was one day old in 2015, in the conservancy. It is not clear the circumstances that led to this. After waiting in vain for the mother to return, the rangers decided to rescue Loijipu from dehydration and predators and moved him to Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Namunyak Community Conservancy.

And this marked the start of the journey of the rhino under the care of humans.

Salome fed the rhino with special milk formula six times a day. Loijipu became dependent on the ranger and even used to cry whenever she left.

“Initially I was scared to move near the rhino but my colleagues encouraged me and now I consider Loijipu part of my family,” she says.

The bond grew so strong that Salome used to sleep next to the rhino and this worked out well during feeding at 10pm, 2am and 6am in the morning and later in the day.

Slowly the ranger started accompanying Loijipu to the wild to feed and used to pick for him fruits that are a favourite snack for rhinos.

“Loijipu used to cry when the fruits were over but now he knows what is good for him and he feeds on his own in the wild,” she says.

In June 2018, Salome and Loijipu moved back to the conservancy in preparation for its release to the wild.

The rhino now spends time on his own in the conservancy, and is monitored at a distance by rangers.

Loijipu is four years old and has started to display characteristics of a wild rhino. He snorts and stamps his feet if someone he doesn’t know approaches.

“Initially I used to call him once and he would come running but now I have to call Loijipu twice for him to respond. He is displaying characteristics of a wild rhino and I have to stop him from attacking other rangers whenever they come close,” she says.

Due to the nature of the black rhino and their need to mark and own territories, Loijipu is now living on his own, in a fenced territorial area and will be fully released to the wild when he turns six years.

Sera Community Conservancy manager Reuben Lendira says Salome was picked as a rhino keeper after they realised that women are patient with the animals and are always available to offer the much needed care.

“They take care of baby rhinos like their children and are much better than men,” he says.

Mr Lendira explains that women are mostly assigned day duties in the conservancy while the heavy task of night patrols is done by men. He notes that so far the conservancy has 12 female rangers.

“We urge the women to join efforts to drive conservancy goals,” he says.

The conservancy was established in 2004 and is one of the 39 community conservancies supported by the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT).