Traditionally, the Samburu women of northern Kenya are married off at a young age without an education, let alone a chance to work. But as the first female head keeper of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in the remote Mathews mountain range, Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk is breaking new ground. Though she and the women who work for her encounter resistance, the team at Reteti is united in its mission to rescue abandoned elephant calves, nurse them back to health, and reintroduce them to the wild. It requires vigilance and round-the-clock care, but Lowuekuduk’s passion for saving these 200-plus-pound babies knows no bounds.
When she first arrived at Reteti in September 2016, Lowuekuduk would search for orphaned elephants by tracking their dung in deserted forests. “There were no human beings, just you and the footsteps of the wild,” she says. “I was a bit afraid that my life could be in danger.” Now the team at Reteti has rescued 30 elephants, and the ripple effect tied to wildlife conservation, employment, and economic stability is changing the region. National Geographic photographer and documentary filmmaker Ami Vitale visited Reteti and spoke to Lowuekuduk about the obstacles facing the community-owned sanctuary and the progress she’s making.
AMI VITALE: What did you do before you came to Reteti?
SASHA DOROTHY LOWUEKUDUK: I finished college and worked in a hospital finance office as a clerk. But I wanted to work with wild animals. Now I’m like a nurse, raising animals as if they were my own children.
AV: What is new about your role as supervisor?
SDL: It has challenges because now it’s not only about the elephants but also about the staff, their salaries, and the supplies. And on top of that we all need rest. This is all part of my task. I never thought I would be a supervisor, and not everyone was happy about it. Some of my [male] colleagues were expecting to lead, but it’s challenging them to work harder, and that’s a good thing. It is also making me grow as well.
AV: Why is it so difficult to be a woman in this role?
SDL: A woman is an icon in every community. But the men in mine never saw us this way. They see us as weak and think that the elephants can push us down. It can cause fear, but not for the women of Reteti. We are strong. Our [biggest] challenge is leading the men. Some of them are harsh when I tell them to do something. It is a challenge, but we accept it, and we move on.
AV: Do you think it’s going to lead to a better future for Samburu children when they see women working?
SDL: It is not even “I think”—it will. Women are now being educated, going to school, looking for jobs to have their own money, and making their own decisions instead of looking for a man to make their decisions. And because we work at Reteti, we get transportation, bursaries, and employment. My community can see that when these animals benefit through our work, the community does too.
AV: Is Reteti changing the way men relate to women in your community?
SDL: Yes. The uneducated men who traditionally saw women staying at home now see their daughters working at Reteti, and they know that women need to be respected, educated, and not left behind.
AV: What keeps you motivated?
SDL: The responsibility of showing elephant babies that they have come to the right place, the right family. One example is an elephant named Nadasoit. She got [so ill that] she couldn’t get up, and we put her on drips for energy. It’s really difficult to see a baby elephant close to death, but we worked hard [to keep her alive]. We don’t get tired of these elephants. Teams are watching over them day and night. Nadasoit was lying down for a week, but the moment we saw her stand, [we had] more energy to work. She is now 10 months old.
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AV: That had to make you feel so good.
SDL: I can see that we did something great [by helping] her survive, and that’s our happiness. Now she kisses and hugs us. You know, elephants have memories. They will never forget us, especially these young ones that we rescue from the wild. They [will remember] us forever.
AV:People are traveling far and wide to see what you’re doing. What does that mean to you?
SDL: It is our happiness that we, the women of Reteti, have shown my community, my country, and the entire world that this job is not just for men. No one in my community believed a woman could do this, and I am proud of myself.
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For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 6.