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A keeper with one of the rescued elephants at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary.

AMI VITALE/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE (RETETI ELEPHANT SANCTUARY); BOAZ ROTTEM/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO (WELL)

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS3.B    

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 3    

TEKS: Science: 3.9C, 5.9A; ELA: 3.9D, 4.9D, 5.9D, 6.8D

Elephant Guardians

How rescuers in Kenya are saving baby elephants from the dangers of drought

Even from far away, villagers could recognize the distinct sound. It was a baby elephant trumpeting in distress. They followed the cries to an empty riverbed. There they found the calf trapped inside a sandy well.

The villagers were members of the Samburu tribe, a people in northern Kenya. That region’s climate is very dry. So the Samburu dig deep pits to reach water underground.

Villagers could tell what the sounds were even from far away. They were from a baby elephant trumpeting in distress. The villagers followed the cries to an empty riverbed. There they found the calf trapped inside a sandy well.

The villagers were members of the Samburu tribe. They’re a people who live in northern Kenya. That region’s climate is very dry. So the Samburu dig deep pits to reach water below the ground.

BOAZ ROTTEM/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

The Samburu people dig wells to reach water underground. Animals that come for a drink can fall in.

At night, thirsty elephants come to drink from these wells. This can be dangerous for a young calf. It can fall into a well and get stuck. When the herd moves on, the calf is left behind.

The villagers knew what to do. They called the nearby Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. Workers came to rescue the calf, which they named Nadasoit. At the sanctuary, keepers raise orphaned elephants and prepare them for life back in the wild. 

Thirsty elephants come to drink from these wells at night. This can be dangerous for a young calf. It can fall into a well and get stuck. The calf is left behind when the herd moves on.

The villagers knew what to do. They called the nearby Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. Workers came to rescue the calf. They named it Nadasoit. At the sanctuary, keepers raise orphaned elephants. They prepare them for life back in the wild. 

Unbalanced System

The Samburu have lived alongside elephants for hundreds of years. The giant mammals help keep the grassland healthy. The elephants eat the grass and leave behind droppings, which contain seeds. This helps more grass grow. 

The Samburu raise cattle, which graze on the grassland. So do wild animals, like buffalo and zebras. They in turn become prey for animals like lions and cheetahs. 

Northern Kenya typically receives rain during just a few months in the fall and spring. The region’s plants and animals  have adapted to survive without water for long periods of time.

The Samburu have lived alongside elephants for hundreds of years. The giant animals help keep the grassland healthy. The elephants eat the grass. They leave behind droppings that contain seeds. This helps more grass grow. 

The Samburu raise cattle. They graze on the grassland too. So do wild animals, like buffalo and zebras. They in turn become prey for animals like lions and cheetahs. 

Northern Kenya usually gets rain during just a few months in the fall and spring. The area’s plants and animals can survive without water for long periods of time.

But for the past two years, Kenya has experienced a major drought. The severe lack of rain has made it difficult for farmers to grow crops. As a result, many people across the country have gone hungry. 

The drought has also made life harder for Kenya’s animals. Elephants must travel long distances to find water. Calves that fall into wells or can’t keep up with their herds are often abandoned. If a mother can’t get enough to drink, her milk dries up and her calf can starve.

The Samburu saw that elephant numbers were shrinking. Fewer elephants meant there would be less grass for their cattle. Wildlife was dying too, says Katie Rowe. She helps run the sanctuary. “When you take an elephant out of the landscape, it’s a very big loss.”

But Kenya has been going through a major drought for the past two years (see A Thirsty Land). The lack of rain has made it hard for farmers to grow crops. Many people across the country have gone hungry as a result.

The drought has also made life harder for Kenya’s animals. Elephants must travel far to find water. Calves that fall into wells are often left behind. The same thing happens if the calves can’t keep up with their herds. And a mother’s milk dries up if she can’t get enough to drink. Her calf can then starve.

The Samburu saw that elephant numbers were falling. Fewer elephants meant there would be less grass for their cattle. Wildlife was dying too, says Katie Rowe. She helps run the sanctuary. “When you take an elephant out of the landscape, it’s a very big loss.”

AMI VITALE/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Keepers use bottles to feed calves special formula.

Helping Hands

The Samburu community founded the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in 2016. Since then, the sanctuary has rescued 36 calves. Some lost their mothers to poachers. Others, like Nadasoit, were stuck in wells.

When rescuers reached Nadasoit, she was very weak. After lifting her out, they gave her water and covered her with a blanket. They put a cloth over her eyes to calm her down.

The Samburu founded the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in 2016. The sanctuary has rescued 36 calves since then. Some had lost their mothers to poachers. Others, like Nadasoit, were stuck in wells.

Nadasoit was very weak when rescuers reached her. They lifted her out. They gave her water. Then they covered her with a blanket. They also put a cloth over her eyes. It helped calm her down.

AMI VITALE/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Calves snuggle with blankets—and often keepers—to stay warm at night.

A helicopter carried Nadasoit to the sanctuary. There, Samburu keepers nursed her back to health. They fed her special formula from bottles. To make sure she felt safe, the keepers took turns sleeping next to her at night.

Nadasoit, now a year old, is doing well. She and the other calves spend a lot of time playing with the keepers. 

The calves love to kick soccer balls! “Elephants are intelligent and emotional,” says Rowe. “They need a lot of attention.”

A helicopter carried Nadasoit to the sanctuary. There, Samburu keepers nursed her back to health. They fed her special formula from bottles. The keepers took turns sleeping next to her at night. That helped her feel safe.

Nadasoit is now a year old. She’s doing well. She and the other calves spend a lot of time playing with the keepers.

The calves love to kick soccer balls! “Elephants are intelligent and emotional,” says Rowe. “They need a lot of attention.”

AMI VITALE/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

The elephants love to kick soccer balls!

Uncertain Future

In the spring of 2018, heavy rain fell on Kenya’s hard, dry soil, causing flash floods. But that doesn’t mean Kenya’s drought problems are over. Experts think that droughts will become more common as Earth’s climate warms.

Meanwhile, the elephants at the Reteti sanctuary are growing up. Once they’re 4 years old, they will no longer need to be cared for by humans. They’ll wander farther on their daily walks and spend more time in the wild.

One day, the elephants will choose to stay there. “They should be able to meet back up with their families,” says Rowe.

Heavy rain fell on Kenya’s hard, dry soil in the spring of 2018. That caused flash floods. But that doesn’t mean Kenya’s drought problems are over. Experts think that droughts will become more common as Earth’s climate warms. 

Meanwhile, the elephants at the Reteti sanctuary are growing up. They will no longer need to be cared for by people once they’re 4 years old. They’ll wander farther on their daily walks. And they’ll spend more time in the wild. 

The elephants will choose to stay there one day. “They should be able to meet back up with their families,” says Rowe.

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