Warriors Who Once Feared Elephants Now Protect Them

From afar, the cries of a baby elephant in distress seem almost human. Drawn by the sounds, young Samburu warriors, long spears in hand, thread their way toward a wide riverbed, where they find the victim. The calf is half-submerged in sand and water, trapped in one of the hand-dug wells that dot the valley. Only its narrow back can be seen—and its trunk, waving back and forth like a cobra.

As recently as a year ago, the men likely would have dragged the elephant out before it could pollute the water and would have left it to die. But this day they do something different: Using a cell phone, ubiquitous even in remotest Kenya, they send a message to Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, about six miles away. Then they sit and wait.

Reteti lies within a 975,000-acre swath of thorny scrubland in northern Kenya known as the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust—part of the ancestral homeland of the Samburu people. Namunyak is supported and advised by the Northern Rangelands Trust, a local organization that works with 33 community conservancies to boost security, sustainable development, and wildlife conservation.

The region includes the Turkana, Rendille, Borana, and Somali, as well as the Samburu—ethnic groups that have fought to the death over the land and its resources. Now they’re working together to strengthen their communities and protect the estimated 6,000 elephants they live, sometimes uneasily, alongside.

The riverbed that the Samburu men have come to looks dry and unyielding, but just below the surface is water. Elephants can smell water, and Samburu families, guided by elephants’ scrapings, have dug narrow wells to reach the cold, clean, mineral-rich elixir. Each family maintains a particular well, which can be as much as 15 feet deep. While drawing water, Samburus sing a rhythmic chant praising their cattle, luring the animals to the life-giving source. During the dry months (February, March, September, and October) the Samburu deepen their…

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