Heart-Melting Photographs Take You Inside an African Elephant Orphanage

National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale captured the tender relationships between elephants and their caregivers at a sanctuary in Kenya.

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May 30 2017, 5:56pm

Photograph by Ami Vitale, National Geographic. Mike Learka reaches for a bottle of formula while Naomi Leshongoro (at right) empties one into a hungry mouth. In the wild, grown elephants can be a threat to humans and their property—the Samburu have traditionally avoided them or chased them away.

The Retetei Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya is home to nearly a dozen orphaned or abandoned elephants, cared for by over 20 members of a local tribe called the Samburu. Since 2016, the group has gone from ignoring or fearing elephants to taking care of them. National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale, who captured the recovery of the Chinese panda population disguised in a panda costume, visited Retetei to document the elephant rescuers.

Funded by Conservation International, San Diego Zoo Global, and Tusk UK, the The Retetei Elephant Sanctuary is part of an international push to fight elephant poaching and preserve the species. At the Tribeca Film Festival, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocated for the species in discussion around Bigelow and Imraan Ismail's VR film, The Protectors.

Photographs by Ami Vitale / National Geographic. Joseph Lolngojine, a Samburu warrior turned elephant caretaker, watches over Kinya. Moments after this photo was taken, it was decided to bring her to the sanctuary to try to save her life.

According to Vitale, growing understanding of elephants has changed locals' behavior toward the animals in Kenya. She describes a scene in which local Samburus find a baby elephant trapped in a well. Rather than dragging it from the well immediately and risking the baby's life to preserve the water, they report it to Retetei rangers. They safely dig the elephant out and wait 36 hours for its herd to return. When the calf needs more serious attention, they transport it to the sanctuary.

Below are Vitale's charming portraits of life among the elephants at Retetei.

Photographs by Ami Vitale / National Geographic. Samburu warriors found this baby trapped in a hand-dug well. When the elephant's herd didn't come back for her, the team took her to the sanctuary. Dubbed Kinya, she was given loving care by keepers such as Rimland Lemojong. Even so, she died weeks later.

Photographs by Ami Vitale / National Geographic. Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk mixes formula for the babies. "The sanctuary has changed my feelings about elephants," she says proudly.

Photographs by Ami Vitale / National Geographic. A feel-good dirt bath is just the thing in the heat of the day. A coating of soil helps protect sensitive elephant skin by acting as both sunscreen and insect repellent. Shaba (lying down) demonstrates how it's done for the younger orphans.

Photographs by Ami Vitale / National Geographic. Samburu warriors found this baby trapped in a hand-dug well. When the elephant's herd didn't come back for her, the team took her to the sanctuary. Dubbed Kinya, she was given loving care by keepers such as Rimland Lemojong. Even so, she died weeks later.

See more of Ami Vitale's work on her website, and read her full story here.

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