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Reteti Elephant Sanctuary: An African trailblazer

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written by
James Niarra Travel crop
James Whiteman

The most sustainable long-term way to protect wildlife and wild areas is to let local communities take ownership of conservation projects at a grassroots level.  

Historically, many efforts to save species have excluded people, sometimes physically by moving entire populations to create national parks, or more subtly in terms of decision making. If people living in at-risk wild areas don’t share the tangible benefits from their protection – which often impacts livelihoods – they can’t be expected to support them.

Finding a more progressive and inclusive way, Kenya’s community conservancy model has shown that self-governed sustainable development can also protect ecosystems, letting people and wildlife coexist and thrive. An inspiring example can be found in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in the country’s wild north.

Owned by around 1200 Samburu families who live in its 75,000 rugged hectares in the Mathews mountain range, Namunyak was founded in response to the poaching crisis of the late 90s. Without elephants or black rhinos, scrub took over the landscape, making cattle rearing more challenging for a culture that depends on its herds. Thanks to conservation efforts of the people in partnership with NGOs, wildlife has returned including some 4000 elephants, in part funded by safari lodges which also provide employment and support local development.

And Reteti Elephant Sanctuary is perhaps the jewel in the conservancy's crown and a global ambassador for locally led conservation.

Africa’s first community-owned elephant sanctuary, Reteti responds to calls from across the region to rescue lost, orphaned or abandoned calves, reuniting them with their families if possible, or rehabilitating and hand-rearing young ones until they are ready to be released.

The 60-strong team here, including an incredible group of keepers of mostly local Samburu women, offers refuge to around 20 elephant calves at any given time, nurturing them until they are ready to return to the wild.

The orphaned elephants that are cared for by the Samburu here are symbols of a new way of thinking about wildlife and the environment that goes far beyond traditional conservation methods, diving deeper into what nature represents while helping to break down stereotypes and empowering local people.

Reteti is also an unforgettable place to visit and experience in person. There are three fabulous places to stay close to Reteti – Sarara Camp, Sarara Treehouses and the exclusive-use Reteti House which is right next to the sanctuary.

As well as meeting the keepers and calves, explore the beautiful mountains on game drives, on foot or on horseback. Regular sightings include elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, gerenuks and black rhinos, while wild dogs are becoming increasingly common as are encounters with leopards. Of the many Samburu cultural experiences, a highlight is the ‘singing wells’, where families from the area gather to share stories, trade messages and tend to their livestock. You can also visit Reteti from lodges as a day trip by road or helicopter from nearby Saruni Samburu or Sasaab.

If you’d like to visit or find out more, get in touch with our Travel Researchers.

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