Kicking Elephant-Sized Goals
An African first: Female keepers keep watch over gentle giants.
WORDS HELEN HAYES
An elephant calf is playing soccer with a rock, dust dancing around his dusky-grey legs. His mother is keeping a watchful eye on his prowess, while two older elephants shower themselves with fine savanna dust and the rest of the herd grazes on the rich water-fed grass of Amboseli National Park.
The backdrop to this grand elephant tableau is even more mesmerizing. It is the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro, which, at nearly 20,000 feet, is Africa’s highest mountain and the biggest freestanding mountain in the world. It is irresistible, giving a spiritual tug on the heart strings that is impossible to ignore.
Amboseli is one of the most visited national parks in Kenya and is best known for its elephants. The playful soccer-loving calf is one of about 1,800 elephants roaming in the park, which is a UNESCO ‘Man and Biosphere Reserve’.
A baby elephant plays soccer with a rock, while Kilimanjaro looms in the background.
Image: Helen Hayes
Power of the people
Ami Vitale is an award-winning National Geographic photographer, filmmaker, and writer and is a TreadRight Wildlife Ambassador. TreadRight is a not-for-profit organization created as a joint initiative between The Travel Corporation's family of brands.
Ami moved from filming and covering global conflicts to helping save wildlife. She became heavily involved in an initiative to establish a place called Reteti, in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Samburu County, northern Kenya.
Click image to play video
Reteti is a sanctuary for orphaned elephants. It's the first to be community run and is the first in Africa to train and employ women as keepers. Ami has been filming and photographing Reteti since it was just an unlikely dream, with her award-winning documentary Shaba, putting Reteti into the spotlight. Shaba is about the most important elephant to be rescued by Reteti, a young female who became the matriarch of the herd before being successfully released back into the wild.
Retiti can be a blueprint around the world, acording to Vitale.
Image: Ami Vitale
Retiti is the first sanctuary in Africa to train and employ women as keepers.
Having young women as keepers has also been a success. “The amazing thing about hiring the women to be keepers is that it has transformed just how the community relates to the wild elephants but also how they relate to one another,” Vitale says. “It has changed how people view women and what women in the community dream of being. When I first met them, they were painfully shy.... today they are incredibly confident. Reteti has transformed who they are as people in a really powerful way.
“I think [Reteti] can be a blueprint for so many other communities around the world. It is about empowering indigenous communities who have to coexist with these animals,” according to Vitale.
“I think Reteti can be a blueprint for so many other communities around the world. It is about empowering indigenous communities who have to coexist with these animals.”
Making your safari meaningful
Visitors to Kenya play a vital role in animal conservation, but it's important to choose a safari experience that will make a difference to local communities.
No longer should we fly in and frantically try and tick off the ‘Big 5’ before flying out again.
Stay longer. Appreciate the majestic birds, from the lilac-breasted roller to the various types of vultures. Soak up the quintessential blood-orange sunsets, preferably with a sundowner in hand. Learn more about the culture of the region you are in and learn some of the language. In other words, take it polepole (the well known local phrase for ‘slow’ in Swahili), and make it count, no matter where you choose to go.
A blood orange sunset typical of Kenya.
Dr. Susan Snymon, an ecotourism, environmental education, and community development specialist from The African Leadership University, advises visitors to ask questions. “Ensure that the tourism lodges are including communities in benefit-sharing in an empowering, equitable way, that they are operating their camps sustainably. The more we ask questions, the more that companies will need to ensure that they are delivering on these,” Dr. Snymon says.
Use that advice whether you are visiting epic Amboseli and it’s wild elephant herds, beautiful Lake Nakuru National Park, with its flamingos, rhinos and Rothschild’s giraffe, or the country’s oldest park, Nairobi National Park, which is so close to the vibrant capital I saw a giraffe while leaving the international airport.
The more we ask questions, the better, according to Dr. Susan Snymon.
Then there is the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Even just saying the name conjures up images of the Great Migration, when more than a million wildebeest and a several hundred thousand zebra make for greener pastures, even if that means running the gauntlet and crossing the Mara or Talek Rivers, where famished crocodiles await and lions line up for this seasonal buffet. It is spine tingling to witness.
More than a million wildebeest run the gauntlet in The Great Migration from July to September.
One organization that ticks Dr. Snyman's boxes is Ol Pejeta Conservancy, saying it “is a great example of a diversified wildlife economy, including communities in the benefit-sharing.”
Ol Pejeta is home to the two of the world’s last remaining northern white rhinos and is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. There are many options for visitors, from tracking lions with rangers to being a rhino bodyguard. Ol Pejeta is a great example of how the human-wildlife conflict can be balanced, with the ranger and community teams working hand in hand with farmers and pastoralists to lessen risks, most often with elephants.
The largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa is at Ol Pejeta.
An elephantine task
Far from destroying landscapes, elephants create a healthy ecosystem, and as Vitale says are still “one of the best eco engineers there is.”
The effort to save and conserve elephants goes right to the top of the Kenyan government. In October 2021, the Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary, the Hon. Najib Balala, officiated at the inaugural Magic Kenya Tembo Naming Festival in Amboseli National Park, where corporates and individuals donated funds to adopt, and name selected elephants.
Ecosystems generally benefit from the presence of elephants.
Image: Ami Vitale
Hon. Balala announced a significant donation of $16.5 million shillings (USD$150,000) towards elephant conservation, saying; “This is certainly a great milestone for Kenya, this initiative will go a long way in ensuring that elephants are protected in Kenya not only for ourselves, but also for the future generations.”