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It’s 5:00 a.m. when we start our journey. As we hop into the waiting four-wheel truck, I am eager to witness how the Samburu have been feeding orphaned elephant calves with goat milk at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. It’s pitch-black when we leave the main Isiolo-Moyale Highway and take a rough road to Reteti. The outer shadows of trees appear to be dancing as the truck cruises deep into the wilds of the Namunyak Community Conservancy. The early morning air is chilly and soothing; the journey is itself a pleasant torture. We are seated at the back of the partially open truck from where we are forced to duck each time the vehicle brushes against thorny bushes growing too close to the road.

There’s an eerie silence as the vehicle traverses the wild uninhabited land. We are forced to hold on tightly to the truck’s metal framework to avoid been thrown out each time the truck hits rocks on the road and in the dry river beds. Our unwilling dance goes on for about an hour. Then the first rays of the sun, shy and dim, emerge from the distant horizon, allowing us to see more than the monitor lizard that gazes lazily at us a few metres from the road. As the last dark shadows give way, the immensely beautiful landscape beckons. My expectance rises. 

Earlier on, my colleague, Jeff Lekupe, had given me more than a hint of what to expect. As I listened to him, it dawned on me that I was about to witness the story of struggle and triumph. This is the story of a community that took the bull by the horns and decided to be in charge of conserving wildlife on its own land. I am here to learn how the victory of a people who fought for many years and against tremendous odds to be allowed to run their own conservation show looks like. The community found itself pitted against both natural forces and powerful vested interests. It had to deal with the nagging worries associated with a dry, hostile climate made worse by frequent droughts whose severity had risen with global warming. More importantly, the community fought hard against vested interests as it struggled to take back the control and management of Namunyak ever since the conservancy was started in 1995. 

Contesting visions

I am here to witness what it meant for the local people and the wildlife, as two opposing visions played out in Namunyak, which in the Samburu language means a place “where hills hug the clouds”. Like most conservancies in Kenya, Namunyak has been the arena of two contesting visions. The older vision, long upheld by the pastoralist community, is about securing their own survival and their age-old, livestock-based way of life. This has allowed the Samburu and other pastoralists to live and let live, resulting in the preservation of the visually attractive landscapes and the huge herds and packs of wild animals. With time, the Samburu have undoubtedly faced many challenges, of which modernity, the integration of people from other areas, insecurity, neglect by the authorities, and climate change-related problems and the attendant threats to their very survival. As they have upheld the older vision, they have continued to live their lives in the best way they know even with all the challenges. 

Existing side by side with this older vision, and in many instances pitted against it, is a relatively “new” one that has to do with “institutionalised conservation”. The new vision is largely cloaked in European thought, desires and romanticism with nature. The realisation of this vision has relied on the centuries’ old and highly refined traditional conservation ethics and practices of the Samburu people. Championing the newer vision are the Kenyan authorities, conservation NGOs, donors and individuals who have continued to impress on the Samburu to devote much of their lands for the conservation of the impressive diversity and populations of wildlife inhabiting Namunyak and elsewhere in Samburu County. 

Proponents of this vision appear to have won the Samburu over if the vast, extremely attractive lands set aside by the community for conservation are anything to go by. Initially, the outsiders were merely interested in how to save some of the planet’s last remaining herds and packs of wildlife from the poachers’ guns and how to secure tourist dollars and other incidental benefits. They were least concerned with how conservation was received by the Samburu people or how well it supported their livestock-based economy. This is the scenario that led to the formation of Namunyak, one of the first conservancies in Kenya.

Something had to give

But this was bound to fail. Titus Letaapo, Director of Community at the Sarara Foundation, says that initially, wildlife conservation did not work well in Namunyak partly because the interests of the community were least catered for. The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which was formed by some members of the Namunyak Conservancy in collaboration with other people in 2004, soon brought Namunyak under its wings and directly controlled nearly everything that happened there besides assuming the management of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary after it was started by the community in 2016. This put it at loggerheads with community members who expressed much dissatisfaction with what was going on. By undertaking a smart public relations campaign, the NRT ensured that what was taking place escaped public scrutiny. After many years of muted antagonism, the community seized Namunyak and took charge of the conservation ‘show’ that played out in the conservancy. The community also took over Reteti which effectively made it the first community to run an elephant sanctuary on the entire African continent.

I had come all the way from Nairobi to learn how the community was managing Namunyak and, more importantly, the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. And I wasn’t disappointed. 

We spent our first night in a modest hotel at Sere-Olipi Centre, about 80 kilometres from Isiolo Town. Our plan was to leave Sere-Olipi very early the following morning and be at the sanctuary in time to witness scores of women deliver goat milk to collectors hired by the sanctuary. I was keen to witness the entire process; how the milk is delivered, collected, processed and fed to the orphaned jumbo calves.

We arrived at the sanctuary some minutes after 6:00 a.m. Then we boarded one of the milk collection trucks and headed to the L’baa-le-Sunyai collection centre. When we arrived, a number of women carrying small to medium-sized cans of goat or camel milk, were already there. “We feed goat milk to the elephant calves while camel milk is fed to giraffe calves,” said Naserian Loronyokie, Namunyak’s Communication Manager.

As she said this, I realised that most of the women who had brought the milk were now very quiet. They watched keenly as a staff member from the sanctuary tasted the milk and then poured it into 20-litre milk pails. She kept on tasting the milk which made me wonder whether she could be exposing herself to potentially harmful germs. When I voiced my fears to Loronyokie, she laughed it off, saying that the Samburu have always taken raw milk without experiencing any health problems. 

“Previously we had testing equipment but it kept on breaking down, so the collectors have been tasting the milk which works better,” Loronyokie says. I also noticed that the collectors did not immediately record the quantities of milk each of the women had brought to the centre. The entire exercise, I came to learn, is largely based on trust. The women have constituted themselves into a sort of peer review group that dissuades any member from cheating on the quantities they bring or from delivering adulterated milk.

 “They fear killing the calves,” Lolonyokie says.

Thrilling pandemonium

After the milk was collected, it was taken to the pasteurisation centre where it was boiled at 70C for about an hour to kill off any germs. Once this was done, the milk was stored in a refrigerator for a day before being taken to the elephant kitchen where supplements such as coconut oil, honey, the ground leaves of a moringa tree, multi-vitamins and algae were added to give the calves as healthy a milk diet as possible.

The calves were then fed and would be fed later at three-hour intervals throughout the day and during the night. Feeding the calves was a most exciting and touching event for a first-time visitor like me. Somehow, the calves seemed to know that feeding time had arrived. They left their grazing grounds and rushed to the feeding centre where they caused a thrilling pandemonium. It was all systems go as they arrived in a single file with each rushing to its own caretaker. Some would not wait to be fed by their caretakers; they impatiently grabbed the two-litre milk bottles and held them with their trunks while others made loud and impatient grunts and snorts. What was really amazing was that each calf could identify its own caretaker. As the calves took the milk, the caretakers broke into a lovely and soothing Samburu song, making the entire experience an unforgettable one.

Besides being fed on milk, the calves are well taken care of at Reteti. The keepers work very closely with veterinary staff in ensuring that the babies remain healthy. The vets monitor their health by occasionally testing urine, dung and blood, treating those that are sick.

 “The babies get top-notch healthcare,” one of the American tourists quipped after Dorothy Lowuekuduk, the Sanctuary Supervisor took us through the nature of the healthcare given to the calves.

The uniqueness

As I watch it all, it dawns on me that Reteti is indeed unique in a number of ways. For one, it is clear that it is entirely owned and run by members of the community. Women are more involved than men and have put to use their innate feelings of motherhood as they cater for the young jumbos. “When the orphaned calves come here and find our love, they really love us back,” Lowuekuduk says. Some of the milk women, I learned, had pledged to be delivering the milk free-of-charge. “Even after we started paying them, some still donate a few cups to feed the elephant calves,” Loronyokie tells me, adding that each day, the women deliver hundreds of litres of milk and earn Sh180 for each litre they bring to Reteti.

The uniqueness of Reteti’s goat milk project has attracted interest from across the world. It has been the focus of documentaries shot and aired by top TV stations in Europe and America. “Besides this, it attracts thousands of tourists including world-renowned musicians, Formula One drivers, authors as well as international football stars,” says Rehema Lesiriko, a Guest Host at Sarara Lodge. 

While there, tourists are hosted in Sarara Lodge, Reteti House or Sarara Tree Hotel, all of which are high-end facilities owned by the community. The tourists are also taken to the elephant rock where the community elders held a series of meetings to discuss how to start the sanctuary and where a French artist painted an elephant on the giant outcrop. Some of the tourists visit the villages to interact with the milk women. Indeed, as we stood watching the milk collection exercise, a number of tourists arrived just after 7:00 a.m., keen to know more about how the community manages the project.

Hosting tourists generates real income for the community. “We devote 40 per cent of our annual income to conservancy operations while 60 per cent goes to community projects,” says Letaapo, adding that, unlike other community conservancies in Kenya, Namunyak owns all the facilities and has only leased them to private companies.

Women’s input

Reteti is the only sanctuary where jumbo calves are fed on goat milk. Initially, the calves were given a milk formula sourced from South Africa. “But it became impossible to import the formula during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Loronyokie. She adds that it was a staff member who “couldn’t bear to see the calves lose their lives for lack of milk” who “discovered” that they could be fed on goat milk.

The community has borrowed from its traditions to keep the project going. According to Letaapo, the entire project is based on the fact that the Samburu people consider “wildlife to be part of us”. The community has an age-old live-and-let-live relationship with nature and all its components and considers eating the flesh of wild animals to be taboo. 

“Big trees are equated to elders; killing them is considered like killing someone,” Letaapo says. 

The community’s intricate knowledge of the vast lands and the behaviour of elephants and other wild animals is also brought to bear. At the same time, the milk project is based on the traditional division of labour which assigns women to be in-charge of the “lesser” livestock, especially goats and sheep. 

 “The Samburu do not value goats as much as they value cattle,” Loronyokie tells me, adding that the goat milk project has raised the value of goats and given women a veritable source of income and respect. Some of the women I spoke with expressed happiness and satisfaction in the knowledge that they can now command respect from their spouses. For long, most, if not all the women in the milk project had no formal income and relied entirely on their husbands for their daily needs.

“This is the first time nearly all the women are having an income of their own,” says Lolonyokie. Previously, almost all the women spent most of their time at home. But now they have something to look forward to. “Today, they operate bank accounts, which makes it possible for them to make end-of-the month travel forays to Archers Post and Wamba towns for withdrawals and shopping,” Titus says.

The milk project is also changing the way the community views women. Samburu legend has it that women owned wild animals but couldn’t take good care of them well and so the animals ran away to the bush. This is a myth shared by many Kenyan communities that has been used to stereotype women as careless and irresponsible. Lolonyokie says that by supplying the milk fed to the jumbo calves, women have, in a way, “taken back” their property. She says, “Women are now more respected by their husbands.” The Reteti Sanctuary has also employed a number of women rangers some of whom, I learn, have become so sentimentally attached to the calves that they often forfeit their annual leave for fear that they might find them dead upon their return to work. “We actually counsel them before releasing the calves to the wild,” says Letaapo.

Morans’ support

The indomitable morans have also welcomed the project. Top officials of Namunyak have been reaching out to the tough young men to make them understand that conservation is no longer an “us-versus-them” activity and to seek their help in protecting wildlife. 

“We want everyone to realise that the wildlife and the lands that host them are resources owned by the Samburu and that members of the community are in charge,” says Letaapo.  

While touring there, the Director of the Namunyak Conservancy had invited about 200 morans at Ichoro Ngiro area to inform them about the pending release into the wild of 13 grown-up elephant calves and to seek their support in protecting them from poachers.

 “As morans, we are happy with the goat milk project,” said Looku Lekupanai, the leader of the morans, adding that morans did not need to be persuaded by anyone to protect wild animals, “Although we now have an added reason to keep the elephants and wildlife safe in the entire conservancy.”

Children given life skills

Hosting the elephants has also enabled the community to attract significant support from local and international conservation enthusiasts. This has enabled it to initiate a number of projects via the Sarara Foundation which raises financial support on behalf of the conservancy. As a result, young children who ordinarily would not be able attend kindergarten or go to nursery school are now being taught in a number of schools started by the Sarara foundation. While at school the children are taken through the Montessori curriculum, a most appropriate and unique learning system associated with Dr Maria Montessori, the renowned Italian Physician and Educator. The curriculum offers the child practical life skills, teachings that target all the human senses, mathematics, language and cultural training at their own pace and in accordance with their stage of development and interests. Today, Namunyak boasts four such schools that have tens of 3- to 6-year-old children.

At the same time, the community also benefits from a mobile healthcare project which is “filling in” as the entire area does not have any public or private health facility. According to Dorcas Moraa, who coordinates the Sarara Foundation’s health programme, the project mainly focusses on mother and child care and has come in handy because the closest health facility is located some 30 kilometres away. The mobile facility enables community members, and especially pregnant women, to access health services close to their homes thus greatly limiting travel and the inherent danger of encountering dangerous animals or delivering children by the road side. 

The long run?

One of the main challenges the community faces is how to sustain operations at the Reteti Sanctuary and in the entire conservancy over the long run. In addition, it is increasingly becoming trickier for Namunyak as many community members are moving closer to Reteti in the hope of benefiting from the goat milk project. At the same time, the conservancy faces challenges related to climate change and especially the loss of economic and ecological resilience often witnessed in Samburu and in other dry regions of Kenya. 

With guidance from the Sarara Foundation, the community appears to be alive to the challenges and has attempted to tackle them. Reteti officials have started collecting milk from far-flung areas to prevent people from migrating to Reteti. It is also building a strong governance system to bring about seamless operations in the conservancy besides rehabilitating the degraded sections of the rangeland through the construction of a series of semi-circular bunds where water can collect and hence support renewal and growth of vegetation.

“We are also in the process of establishing an endowment fund for Namunyak to cushion us when tourism revenues are low and donor support is not forthcoming,” says Letaapo.