Rescued Elephants Start Journey Back to the Wild

Three orphaned elephant calves from Reteti Elephant Sanctuary have been successfully translocated to a holding area in Sera Wildlife Conservancy, in Kenya’s Samburu County—the first such rewilding initiative for a community-managed wildlife facility. The calves are doing well in what experts call a “soft release,” as close monitoring continues ahead of the final release.

The three bull elephants are the first to be released into the wild after successful rehabilitation and weaning. A release and post-release monitoring protocol has been established, aimed at monitoring the success of their reintegration. The protocol encompasses monitoring movement patterns and social behavior. With leadership from Save the Elephants and support from San Diego Zoo Global, the three calves have been fitted with GPS/GSM satellite tracking collars. Scientists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are integrating behavioral data collected through video surveillance to generate a detailed look at the orphans’ reintegration into the wild.

“The release of these young bulls back into the wild is such a cause for celebration for us at Reteti,” said Moses Lenaipa, manager of Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. “It is what we wish for every elephant in our care, to be back where they belong. And as the network of community conservancies in northern Kenya becomes stronger, there is more hope for elephants like them.”

A team of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) scientists and veterinarians, Sera and Reteti management, and community representatives had visited the two facilities and confirmed that requirements were in place for the translocation from the Reteti rescue facility to Sera Wildlife Conservancy.

The Reteti elephant rescue and rehabilitation center is located within the Ngilai West group ranch of Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy (NWC) in Samburu East, Samburu County. The NWC covers about 800 acres and includes three management units—Nalowuon, Ngilai and Kalepo. The rescue facility was commissioned on July 26, 2016, following a series of appraisals and a memorandum of understanding with Kenya Wildlife Service after a proposal was submitted in January 2014. Its objectives are to provide rescue, return (rejoining rescued calves with families immediately) and rehabilitation of orphaned and abandoned elephant calves in the northern elephant range, and to promote conservation education in the neighboring communities.

To date, the facility has rescued more than 47 elephants, one black rhino, one greater kudu and one zebra foal. Five of the elephants were immediately reunited with their families, 16 did not survive due to their weak body condition at the time of rescue and 15 are undergoing care at the facility.

The eventual plan is to release rescued animals back into the wild and institute a comprehensive post-release monitoring strategy in partnership with stakeholders. Currently, three bulls that are over 3 years old have been separated and weaned, in preparation for the release.

“We are working to support our community-based collaborators in Kenya, in efforts to rewild rescued orphan elephants calves,” said Megan Owen, Ph.D., director of Population Sustainability at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “Our hope is that the released calves will become integrated into the social fabric of the wild elephants groups in Sera.” A soft release approach has been adopted to support the survival of the calves. This approach entails releasing the calves in a very large temporary holding enclosure called a boma, in Sera Wildlife Conservancy, and eventually releasing them into the conservancy habitat. While in the soft-release area, the calves have ample opportunity to interact freely with wild elephants. The three orphaned bulls are Warges, age 4, rescued from Wamba (Samburu); Sosian, age 3, rescued from Sosian (Laikipia); and Lingwesi age 3, rescued from Ilngwesi (Laikipia). At the time of their rescue, the calves were too young to have survived on their own. In addition to proximity of Sera Wildlife Conservancy to the Reteti rescue facility, this conservancy was selected because it has a perimeter fence, no large predators such as lions, an enhanced law enforcement team comprised of Kenya Wildlife Service and community scouts, minimal human activity and a substantive elephant population that the bulls may integrate with.

Photos courtesy of Northern Rangelands Trust