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.
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.
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.