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Podcast: ‘Stubborn optimism’ for elephants fuels Indigenous conservation effort

  • On today’s episode of the Mongabay Newscast we take a look at an Indigenous-led elephant sanctuary in Kenya and the latest research informing conservation of forest elephants in Gabon.
  • Our first guest is National Geographic photographer and documentary filmmaker Ami Vitale, whose new short film ‘Shaba’ tells the story of an orphaned elephant in Kenya and the Indigenous Samburu people who have rescued dozens of elephants at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary.
  • We also speak with Duke University professor John Poulsen, who tells us about recent research into forest elephants’ role as ecosystem engineers, another study that tracked the movements of nearly 100 elephants in Gabon, and how the findings of these studies can inform conservation measures for the critically endangered species.

Today we’re looking at Indigenous-led projects and the latest research informing conservation of elephants, the largest land animal in existence and one of the world’s most widely recognized and beloved wildlife species.

Listen here:

There are three types of elephants in the world, all of which are endangered: there’s the Asian elephant and two species found in Africa, the bush elephant and the forest elephant. We discuss conservation of the African species on this episode of the Mongabay Newscast.

Our first guest is National Geographic photographer and documentary filmmaker Ami Vitale, who has recently made a short film called Shaba about an elephant rescued by the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, which is owned and operated by an Indigenous Samburu community in Kenya. Vitale tells us about how Shaba the elephant overcame the trauma of watching poachers kill her mother to became the first matriarch elephant at the sanctuary; the Samburu people, especially Samburu women, who run the sanctuary and care for orphaned elephants with love and dedication; and how you can watch her new short film that tells the story of Shaba and Reteti. Plus, Vitale tells us there’s a surprise in store for those who seek out the film on World Elephant Day, August 12th.

Our second guest today is John Poulsen, an associate professor at Duke University in the US whose work as a tropical ecologist and conservationist has focused on Central Africa for over 20 years. According to Poulsen, African forest elephants are important ecosystem engineers, but we know a lot less about them than we do about their larger cousins, African bush elephants. Poulsen tells us about recent research that seeks to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the species by tracking the movements of African forest elephants in Gabon and how the study’s findings can help inform conservation strategies for the critically endangered species.

You can watch a trailer for Shaba here:

YouTube video player

For your further listening pleasure, here’s a January 2020 episode of the Mongabay Newscast featuring Ami Vitale, in which she discusses how meeting Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, changed her life:

And here’s a May 2020 episode featuring many bioacoustics recordings of forest elephants in central Africa:

Dorothy Lowakutuk, a keeper at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, preparing to feed an orphaned elephant a bottle of milk. Photo by Ami Vitale.
Elephant keeper Mary Lengees with Reteti’s first orphan, named Suyian. Photo by Ami Vitale.

If you enjoy the Mongabay Newscast, we ask that you please consider becoming a monthly sponsor via our Patreon page, at Just a dollar per month will really help us offset the production costs and hosting fees, so if you’re a fan of our audio reports from nature’s frontline, please support the Mongabay Newscast at

You can subscribe to the Mongabay Newscast wherever you get your podcasts from. You can also listen to all episodes here on the Mongabay website. Or you can download our new app for Apple and Android devices to gain fingertip access to new shows and all our previous episodes.

Featured Image: Elephants at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya. Photo by Ami Vitale.

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001

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