For Kenya’s orphaned elephants, goats to the rescue

In northern Kenya, an elephant orphanage turns a pandemic challenge into a win—for the calves, the community, and the land.

At the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya, orphaned calves such as Hamsini, above, used to be fed imported human infant formula. Now many drink a formula based made of local goat milk, which is cheaper, more sustainable, and easier to source.

As the light warmed toward dusk, five people dressed in shades of green milled nervously around a baby elephant. All the science, all the theory leading up to this moment, checked out. But now, it was a question of practice: Would this three-foot-tall infant like the newly concocted baby formula? Would her body react well to it?

The five people, keepers at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, northern Kenya’s only elephant orphanage, grasped one another’s hands. They were half-praying that she would be healthy, half-promising that they’d make sure of it. As baby Sera’s sips turned to glugs, and one downed bottle turned into two, the tension started to loosen. And in the days that followed, the feeble two-week-old gained weight and the strength to play with the other elephant calves at the orphanage.

The keepers celebrated their breakthrough and marveled at both its simplicity and sustainability. The core ingredient of the new formula was something that was in abundant supply: goat milk.

The team had been mulling over how to improve their milk recipe for a long time, says Katie Rowe, co-founder of Reteti, in the community-owned Namunyak Conservancy. The orphanage had used human baby formula since its establishment in 2016, but costs were high, cans had to be imported, and nutrients weren’t always natural. “I was looking at the ingredients and analyzing each micronutrient and macronutrient and seeing that what was being used in these tins was not fantastic,” Rowe says. “There were better options out there.”

The pandemic provided the push they needed to find that better option. Sourcing baby formula had become more difficult as lockdowns impeded travel from remote Reteti to cities that stocked the right products, and the collapse of the tourism industry meant that cost efficiency became more important than ever.

The goat milk–based formula has proven easier to source and cheaper by half, but it’s also healthy for the calves and allows the orphanage to contribute to the local economy.

“The elephants are thriving. You can see nutritionally how much better it is for them; you can see it in their recovery after a very traumatic rescue; you can see it in their adjustment time to the rest of the orphaned herd,” Rowe says. It’s also brought about a shift in the relationship between the community and the calves. “When you are sharing your milk, when you are sharing your resources—it is bound to open up compassion for these animals too,” she says. (Read about how warriors who used to fear elephants now work at Reteti helping protect them.)

Healthy calves

Elephant calves drink milk until they’re at least two years old. For Reteti’s orphans, the immune-boosting nutrients from milk are particularly vital. Sera, like many orphaned calves, was abandoned after falling into a well. That means she was standing in water for hours or even days before she was found, making her susceptible to illnesses such as pneumonia. On top of that, the trauma of being separated from her herd was another challenge to her immune system.

Years of calculating in notebooks, spreadsheets, and the orphanage chalkboard the protein, fat, and carbohydrate levels of different milks showed time and again that goat milk could be a good base for the young elephants’ diet. That is, combined with several other ingredients, many of which Reteti had already been using: moringa leaves, probiotics, nutritional supplements, desiccated coconut, whey protein, spirulina, honey, molasses, oats, and multivitamins.

Since its debut in February 2020 with tiny Sera, the new formula has been a resounding success. Eight young calves that arrived in Reteti in the subsequent months have been reared on it and are thriving too.

New income

The new formula has also been a success for the Samburu community, which sells goat milk to the orphanage.

“This has given us very big benefits,” says pastoralist Stamen Lemajong. Each morning, Lemajong’s family and others travel along acacia-lined paths to sell more than 150 liters of milk to the sanctuary every day. That’s enough for the seven youngest calves who rely on it, but the sanctuary is still working on sourcing enough milk to transition all 23 orphans onto the new formula.

“We use the income for everything—to take the kids to school, paying hospital bills,” Lemajong says. “And in times of hardship last year it has been a huge help. Then we could even buy food with it.”

The pandemic has been hard for pastoralists, he says. Family members lost jobs, and the closure of livestock markets made it difficult for anyone in the community to sell animals—the main, and often only, source of income.

“Luckily it was at that time that we started selling to the elephant sanctuary,” he says. “If it weren’t for the milk we were sending, I don’t know what we would have done.” (Learn more about how wildlife conservation in northern Kenya survived the pandemic.)

Protecting the land

But even as the impacts of COVID-19 start to diminish, the region faces another hardship: drought. Meager rains threaten livestock, endanger wildlife, and increase the chances of clashes between the two. Even Sera’s plight is likely to become more common. “The more we get dry season, the more these communities keep on digging wells, says Reteti keeper Dorothy Lowakutuk. “More elephants are falling in.”

While drought can’t be eliminated, its effects can be mitigated through measures like protecting the soil. Right now, about 70 percent of Namunyak Conservancy’s land is severely degraded, says Titus Letaapo, who oversees the sanctuary’s goat milk market project.

Reteti’s embrace of goat milk and concern about land degradation might seem like a point of tension: After all, overgrazing by goats degrades land. But, Letaapo’s team of eco-rangers teaches pastoralists best practices, like grass-protecting rotational grazing, as well as methods to increase milk yields. One goal with the latter is for people to be able to expand their incomes without necessarily having to expand their herds.

“The community benefitted a lot through the sanctuary,” says milk seller Lemajong. Although, he says, the first time he went to the orphanage he found it jarring.

“Seeing elephants being kept…like domestic goats and cows was a big surprise,” he laughs. But it serves as yet another reminder of the ways in which their fates, and everyone else’s in this part of northern Kenya, are intertwined.

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