These baby elephants are thriving, and they have goats to thank
Photographs by Ami Vitale
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN
March 18, 2022
For years, baby elephants lived off powdered formula — the same used for infant humans — at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya.
But when global supply chains were severely disrupted by the coronavirus, the sanctuary had to find a more dependable source of food for its calves, who had been either orphaned or abandoned.
Fortunately, the answer was right in their backyard.
The Reteti sanctuary — the first elephant orphanage in Africa to be owned and run by members of the local community — had already been thinking about using milk from local goats.
The pandemic provided the push it needed to try its experiment.
“It was really just kind of being brave enough to change, to move away from a formula that you've always used,” said Katie Rowe, who co-founded the sanctuary in 2016. “The pandemic did this to people across the world, where you suddenly re-evaluated everything that you do in your home, how you cook, how you buy your groceries and how you should be doing things much more locally. And for us, it was something that we'd always felt was really important: that we shouldn't be importing milk from the other side of the world.”
The results have been impressive. Since starting with the goat’s milk, the sanctuary has seen survival rates rise for its youngest and most vulnerable elephants.
“The goat's milk was the perfect solution,” Rowe said. “We'd already done a lot of research into how goat's milk is much better for elephants and much easier to digest. I think it's better for all of us. There's much smaller fat particles so you can digest it much easier — and several other kind of nutritional components that make it superior formula.”
And it’s not just the elephants who are prospering.
“All that money that was going out of the country is now staying within the community and going to the ‘milk mamas,’ ” said photographer Ami Vitale, who has visited the sanctuary several times a year since it opened in 2016. “The women own the goat milk, and for the first time in their lives they are now opening bank accounts and able to save money, giving them an opportunity to send their children to school, to get health care if there's a need for that.”
The milk is supplied by hundreds of goats in local villages. The sanctuary buys around 300 liters a day and brings it back to its kitchen, where they pasteurize it and prepare specialized formulas for each elephant’s individual needs.
It is then fed to the elephants on the same day the goats are milked.
“I just love this story so much because it reminds us that we are creative and if we just try to reinvent and reimagine, there's a lot of solutions that are right in front of us,” Vitale said.
There are nearly 40 elephants right now at the Reteti sanctuary, which rehabilitates the rescued animals before eventually releasing them back into the wild.
All of the elephant keepers are from the indigenous Samburu community, and through Vitale’s photos you can see how very deep bonds have developed between them and their four-legged friends.
“They look after one another. They're family,” Vitale said. “It's funny, when the keepers go home to their own families, you see them calling and checking in. It's really a remarkable thing.”
Rowe said the Samburu people have always had “an incredibly strong relationship with elephants, and there’s this belief that they were once related.”
There are various reasons that a baby elephant in northern Kenya could be orphaned or abandoned. And it’s rarely poaching, Vitale said, as Kenya has had remarkable success with their anti-poaching laws.
Many times, a calf will fall into one of the deep wells that the Samburu have dug into the dry river beds to collect water for themselves and their livestock. These wells are also used by local wildlife, including herds of elephants.
“Very often what happens is a brand-new baby elephant — tiny, like a week old — they will get nudged in by a bigger elephant and fall into the well and then they can't get out,” Vitale said.
Climate change is only making things worse.
“The droughts become longer and more intense,” Vitale said. “These wells get deeper and deeper.”
When a baby elephant is found in a well or abandoned, the Reteti keepers are notified by a community member and they’ll rush out to help.
Once they get to the elephant, they will usually wait about 24 hours with it, to see if its herd will return and the calf can be reunited with its mother. If not, they’ll bring it back to the sanctuary.
“It will be monitored very closely, given lots of hydration, a lot of love and a lot of attention to sort of get them through that sort of traumatic experience of being separated from their herd,” Rowe said.
Slowly, the calf will be introduced to the sanctuary’s other elephants, who are very curious and will often introduce themselves.
At the sanctuary right now, there are three distinct herds. There’s a nursery herd of younger calves, a middle herd that’s a bit older, and then a bigger, older herd of elephants. Depending on what age the new elephant is, it will join one of those groups.
Once they’re in a new herd, they build friendships quickly.
“They're so good at kind of looking after each other, and they're so affectionate and curious of each other,” Rowe said.
The elephants are fed every three hours, and during the days they will go out and spend their time with their new herds. Natural matriarchs have emerged and will often lead the way, keeping the calves in line and teaching them sort of how to be elephants. There’s no human interaction outside of their keepers, who will walk out with them just to make sure they are safe and that they all stay together.
So far, Reteti has released 10 elephants back into the wild since it opened in 2016. It takes years for the elephants to become mature enough to go out on their own, and the timing varies depending on each animal.
“They all have personalities and are very different creatures,” Vitale said. “You can't really see the difference sometimes — I mean I can't, the keepers can — but once they get big enough, the way you can tell the difference is their very distinct personalities. Some are shy. Some are really confident and bold. Some are really naughty.”
Seeing these beautiful animals develop has been very rewarding for the sanctuary and its keepers, and now — thanks to the goats — more elephants will have a chance to flourish. As will local villagers.
“It’s really reminded us of how interconnected we all are and sort of the healthier the landscape is, the healthier your livestock is, the higher yield you'll have,” Rowe said. “And that has direct impact on the health of the community and the wealth of the community.”