The conservation fight for survival in Kenya

The conservation fight for survival in Kenya is paramount in maintaining the wildlife and its environs for future generations. As travellers increasingly look for positive impact when they travel, there are plenty of ways to help them do so, including a trip to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to understand efforts to save a rhino species from extinction and see how a simple water system can help elevate a child’s life.

Ol Pejeta is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, and home to two of the world’s last remaining northern white rhinos. It is the only place in Kenya to see chimpanzees, in a sanctuary established to rehabilitate animals rescued from the black market. It has some of the highest predator densities in Kenya, and still manages a very successful livestock programme.

A pack of K9 dogs support a team of dedicated rangers together to protect the 90,000-acre conservancy from poachers who would seek to strike the wildlife population, including awesome rhinos. Ol Pejeta had 20 black rhinos in 1993, and successful breeding combined with the work of its tough anti-poaching operations has allowed this number to flourish to over 165 today, the largest black rhino sanctuary in East and Central Africa. And there are two other rhinos who get special attention though – ones thought to be the last two northern white rhinos on the planet. The conservation fight for rhino survival in Kenya is supported by a dedicated team.

A rhino mother (Najin) and daughter (Fatu) live as good a life as possible in a 7,000-acre enclosure, treated like the royalty they are, albeit under 24-7 armed protection for their own safety. They arrived here in 2009 from a zoo in the Czech Republic in the hopes more natural conditions would help their chances of breeding. Their male ancestor Sudan – who came with them from the zoo – was the last known male on the planet, but his death in 2018 was a big blow.

And what had also become evident was one of the most tragic things: neither of these females is capable of carrying a calf themselves. Perhaps, nature telling us we have gone too far, and that we must just accept we have forced another species into the history books. Northern whites are now seen as “functionally extinct” – but there is some hope, as via assisted reproduction, there is a chance embryos could instead be put inside surrogate southern white rhinos.

Last September, three years after starting its ambitious programme to save the species from extinction, the BioRescue consortium successfully created additional embryos in a lab in Italy using harvested egg cells from Fatu, bringing the total to 22 matched with saved sperm from two late bulls and now being kept in liquid nitrogen.

Once the protocol to transfer the embryos to surrogate southern white rhinos is optimized, these could be the foundation of a new northern white population, eventually destined to step back into their ecological role as keystone grazers in Central Africa.

Along with Najin, Fatu and all the black rhinos, there are more than 30 southern white rhinos in the conservancy, gently grazing their way around the open plains. They roam in relative safety among other creatures such as  200 reticulated giraffes, with hearts that can weigh up to 10kg in order to pump the blood along that long neck to the brains of these elegant creatures. The conservancy is also home to endangered African wild dogs, oryx, cheetah and bat-eared foxes.

Ol Peteja itself is a chameleon story. From a working cattle ranch in colonial Kenya in 2003 to a trailblazer of conservation innovation, this farm became a wildlife haven and is now an often hailed and copied model of African co-existence. 900 acres of Rhodes grass is planted for drought reserves, another 4,000 acres is set aside for arable growing, to bring in the revenue to spend on conserving wildlife and fostering community development. Livestock are also bred for sale.

It also works with neighbours outside its fences to foster advanced agricultural techniques and to spread the word on how wildlife conservation translates to better education, healthcare and infrastructure for the next generation of wildlife guardians. It seems a well-oiled machine, one that was able to continue sending its agricultural wares to market during the pandemic and in turn, continue funding its conservation projects even when tourist numbers shrivelled.

And life in the conservancy does seem abundant. As soon as our little plane landed on the airstrip from Nairobi, the safari began in the vehicles despatched to collect us for the journey to our tented camp, Sanctuary Tambarare, launched last year (and recently joined in the area by an exclusive A&K mobile camp for up to 24 people). Almost everywhere I looked, there was a dazzle of zebra trotting around the open plains (‘Why do zebras have stripes’, I hear you ask – various theories: to give camouflage, confuse predators, even to deter flies who have been proven to avoid them), while a troop of around 50 baboons bounded across our track too.

This means you get to go out with a ranger looking for them for monitoring purposes and the data you collect goes straight to Ol Pejeta’s ecological monitoring unit while helping find solutions to the challenges facing Laikipia’s lions. Being able to get up closer to wildlife through carefully orchestrated experiences such as this – and the rhino and anti-poaching sessions – not only gives visitors an insight into conservation and hopefully creates life-changed ambassadors, it of course brings revenue. Usual twice-daily drives are included in the cost of the stay at Tambarare, but these extra special Ol Pejeta experiences are chargeable, click here and explore all the options available.

To travel to Ol Pejeta you will need to catch a flight to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). You may choose to stay in a hotel in Nairobi and then catch a domestic flight from Wilson Airport to Nakuru, Nakuru is a 3-hour drive. Alternatively, you may also choose to hire a car and make a 3-hour drive from Nairobi to Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Don’t forget to prebook your tours and activities prior to arriving at Ol Pejeta.

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