Sasha Lowuekuduk: The elephant whisperer

Saturday December 8 2018

Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk at Reteti

Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk feeding a baby elephant at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Samburu. PHOTO | COURTESY | AMI VITALE 

By SUSAN MUUMBI
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When she was growing up, Dorothy Sasha Lowuekuduk never thought she would end up taking care of elephants. Her first encounter with an elephant wasn’t even in her home county of Samburu in northern Kenya.

Dorothy went to high school in Nakuru County, where she was the chair of the Wildlife Club.

Once, on a trip to Lake Nakuru National Park, she saw an elephant for the first time and from a distance. “It was huge and scary,” she said.

About a month ago, I met Dorothy at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary Community United for Elephants in Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Samburu County. It is a community-owned elephant orphanage. Dorothy is the head keeper at the sanctuary.

I spoke with her and this is her story:

“Before the project started in August 2016, the people in this community donated their land for the establishment of the sanctuary.” It took three years of discussions for the community to come to an agreement on this.

One of the benefits was that it would provide employment to the community. Reteti Elephant Sanctuary only employs keepers from Samburu.

That’s how I got the opportunity to work here. They advertised that they needed a woman and a man to be elephant keepers.

At the interview, I was the only woman who showed up. Perhaps if there had been another woman, she might have been chosen instead. So I became an elephant keeper.

The work is hard. You are facing an animal that is highly intelligent, and very strong. It was extremely challenging for me.

Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk at Reteti Elephant

Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Samburu. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI | NMG

In the beginning, I wanted to get right in and start feeding the elephants. But you have to start with washing stables, cleaning the kitchen, preparing the milk, cutting branches, especially during the dry season, for the night feeding.

I had not done this kind of work before. This area was very remote and we had wild animals all around us.

So I wanted to leave because I didn’t get to feed the elephants. After three months, I was finally allowed to feed them. The moment I got close to the elephants, I was comfortable with them.

From that time on, I started to enjoy my job. Sometimes we have to take the bottles to the elephants out in the wild, instead of waiting for them to come in, especially during the dry season.

It has now become the most beautiful part of my life. I’m passionate about my job. I’m proud to be the first female Samburu keeper.

I came to work here on November 26, 2016. Before that, I was working at a hospital. I have a diploma in community service and social work.

When I got here, I was 22 years old. I’m planning to study some more, probably a degree in nutritional management.’

What was your first experience with the elephants?

‘The first time I fed an elephant, we only had three of them, Baawa, Pokot and Shaba.

It was easy to just go to your elephant, pick them out and feed them. I was not scared because I was feeding the little one called Baawa.

Baawa was playing with Pokot, who was like his big brother. I was carrying Pokot’s bottle, and the other keeper was carrying Baawa’s bottle.

When we went in, Baawa ran towards me, but something annoyed Pokot. Baawa went to the person who was feeding him, and I went over to Pokot to give him his bottle. But he was still annoyed and he hit me four times, and I fell down. Pokot would have killed me, he was going to fall on my head as I lay on the ground.

The other keepers ran over to me and shooed Pokot away. I was rushed to hospital as I had sustained soft tissue injury. I was on physiotherapy for a month, and stayed home for two months. I couldn’t move much.

Rock art about a kilometre away from Reteti.

Rock art about a kilometre away from Reteti. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI | NMG

My parents were against my return to work here but I came back without telling them. When they called, I told them that I had reported back to work. They said I shouldn’t complain if there was another incident.

When I got back, the other keepers told me not to go back to feeding the elephants, but I was not going to be so easily scared off. I went right back.
I understood that Pokot didn’t really mean to harm me.

Elephants are sensitive animals and women have been found to be dedicated keepers, much in the same way they take care of their own children.

Some baby elephants have pneumonia when they get here because of spending cold nights in the wild alone without the warmth of their mothers.

If the elephant suffers from diarrhoea, which is quite smelly, the keeper has to wash it off and smear coconut oil on its behind so that it doesn’t get rashes.

When we take them to quarantine, they need people who can take care of them 24/7. The baby elephants easily become attached to the one person who cares for them.

I have been here for one-and-a half years now. My favourite baby elephant is Shaba. She was the second elephant to come into the sanctuary, after Pokot.

I was employed to take care of her. She was already one year old and she was brought here after her mother was killed by poachers, so she was not happy with us. She’s the only elephant who’s here as a result of poaching.

She was very naughty and stubborn. We couldn’t let her go outside. We spent most of our time with her in the stables. Then we got Baawa.

Baawa was very young and he came in as a result of drought. Shaba adopted him as her younger brother.

I just wanted Shaba to know that we love her, even though she knows that people like us killed her mother.

When she gets destructive, we give her time to calm down, we talk to her and are extremely patient with her. I love her even though I know she will one day return to the wild.

We have grown to love these elephants, and it will be difficult for us when they return them to their families in the wild, but that is where they belong. Our goal is to rehabilitate them and return them to their original families. Elephants move in clans made up of families.

We track the original families by relying on their scent.

The youngest we have at the moment is Kikwa, who is seven months old. The oldest is Shaba, who is now three years and two months old.

We have 11 elephants of whom, three are bulls. We hope to return them to the wild as soon as they turn three which is very soon.

The bulls can be reintroduced to the wild relatively easily because they are can join any family. However, the females can only rejoin their original families. So for now, we’re holding onto Shaba until the other elephants are slightly older then we can release them together.

It takes time to find the original families because elephants migrate all the time. In the dry season, they go as far as Maralal, a town several kilometres away.

Families recognise each other’s scents, and form a circle around the calf. If the elephant is not from that family, it is chased away.

Rangers rarely find abandoned elephant calves in the wild. Because this is a community project, when someone comes across an elephant calf, they notify us.

We rush there with a few keepers and a vet. We stay there for 72 hours waiting to see if the family will return. So far, we have successfully given back six calves when their mothers returned for them.

We quarantine the animals for a minimum of five days. During this time, we do all the lab work, urinalysis, blood work and faecal analysis.
We give them formula and check for infections.

In case of any infection, we communicate with the Kenya Wildlife Service vets, and they guide us on the form of treatment.

We know they have malnutrition when they come in. Some never got enough colostrum from their mothers, some suffered from hunger while looking for their families.

What do you feed the elephants?

We have an elephant kitchen where we prepare the milk. We use human baby formula because there’s none that has been made specifically for elephants and perhaps also because it would be tricky trying to milk an elephant!

For the first six months, the calves are on Liptomil, then they’re put on Enfamil formula.

In addition, we have created our own secret formula for our elephants that we don’t share with other people.

We give them about two litres of milk every three hours, four times a day and four times at night.

Each elephant gets a specific mix of what they need to build their immunity and nutritional status. The milk formula costs $450 for one calf for two weeks.

Elephants at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary,

Elephants at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Samburu. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI | NMG

In the kitchen, we have two whiteboards, one for tracking ingredients and one for tracking the elephants’ reactions to newly introduced ingredients.

Their kidneys and bladders could have been affected by dehydration and parasites. For this, we give them desiccated coconut, which nourishes their skins, and gives them fats, carbohydrates and cholesterol.

We also feed them white porridge oats with milk. We boil water and give it to them at body temperature. We sterilise their bottles, and dry them before their next feed.

We also give them spirulina, which contains copper, to help with their eyesight. The elephant might have been sleeping in one position before they were rescued.

If they were directly facing the sun, their eyes and skin could have been damaged. Spirulina also has sodium, which helps retain water after dehydration, has a calming effect, helps to build their outer muscles, and balances sugar levels.

We also give them whey powder, which helps build their lean muscles. We also give them probiotics with live bacteria, to help build the white blood cells in their bodies, as well as digestive bacteria.

They get calcium and magnesium supplements, which help build their bones and most importantly, their tusks.

We also give them baobab fruit, which has sodium, potassium, magnesium and vitamin C. We monitor their stool constantly and when necessary, deworm them. We have our own vets who monitor the elephants, and they communicate with the vets from KWS.

How does the community benefit from Reteti?

Income goes to families so the community can see the benefits directly.

We are now eight women working here, and we hope to have many more joining us in the future. Currently, there are 47 keepers. I am the supervisor, and we all respect each other.