At Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Kenya, Mary Lengees, one of Reteti’s first female elephant keepers, caresses Suyian, the first resident.
Photo: Ami Vitale (Conservation International)

The Samburu people of Kenya’s northern plains have been in conflict with elephants for years. Elephants and people both need water, and drought means there’s less to go around. The majestic animals also tear down acacia trees the Samburus’ livestock eat.

These are just a few of the reasons people in the region have a history of killing elephants.

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But recently, the conflict has transformed into community. My Africa, a virtual reality film released Monday, puts viewers into the plains to see what a local, indigenous-led effort to protect elephants looks like.

The Samburu, who are nomadic livestock herders, have partnered with their local government since 2016 to raise and release injured and orphaned baby elephants in the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. They now take care of more than 12 of these little kings and queens, forging a new relationship between humans and animals. It’s the first elephant orphanage in Africa that a local community owns and runs.

Courtesy of Conservation International, Passion Planet, Vision3, and DeepVR

Released by Conservation International and narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, My Africa tells the tale of Kenya’s wildlife conservation as elephants fight for their very existence in the face of poaching and human-wildlife conflict.

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“Many elephants have been killed as a result, and many people have died as well due to these types of conflicts,” said Conservation International Vice President of Marketing Melina Formisano, in an email to Earther. “Historically, it is a battle that tends to escalate and the situation has been exacerbated by habitat loss and climate change.”

This battle is ultimately a story about people, though.

Naltwasha Leripe, a young Samburu woman whose story Nyong’o narrates in the film, tends to her livestock daily. She takes them to the water well, which viewers step into, where men sing while they dig. The singing lets goat herds know which well to drink from.

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But elephants sometimes arrive by night to drink from (and occasionally trample) these wells. Baby elephants are especially vulnerable to getting stuck. The video tells the story of Leripe saving one such baby and bringing it to the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, where local Samburu benefit from the jobs and eco-tourism the sanctuary brings.

It’s a win-win for wildlife and indigenous people. In the years since the sanctuary opened, the Sambura community has learned to appreciate their elephants, instead of wanting to get rid of them.

My Africa first premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it’s now available worldwide in English, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, Samburu, Spanish and Swahili.

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