Situated between the foothills of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a 364sq km wildlife conservancy whose game-to-area ratio tops the Kenyan park and reserve league. With over 10,000 large mammals roaming its beautiful landscapes, it is the only park where the “Big Five” and chimpanzees can be seen. It is also where the fastest growing population of rhino in Africa can be found. There are southern white rhino, more than 100 endangered black rhino and, housed in a special sanctuary, are the two last northern white rhino remaining in the world. These last two females are the only northern white rhino left, and once they die, the species will become extinct, unless there are significant advancements in developing specific IVF techniques. The northern white rhino is genetically distinct from its southern cousin, with smaller ears that feature longer fur.
Revenue generated from tourism supports Ol Pejeta’s conservation and community outreach work – ensuring a sustainable, tangible future for the wildlife and people that make this place so special. Ol Pejeta is home to nine tented camps, lodges and homestays, each with a unique experience to offer visitors, and something for every taste and every budget.
We chose Porini Rhino Camp for its reputation as a particularly eco-friendly camp and because it was situated at the farthest end of the Conservancy. The tented accommodation is very simple but authentic. The Manager, Paul, who was really delightful, told us that everyone at Porini Rhino Camp takes their light environmental footprint very seriously (the camp is one of only eight in Kenya with an Eco-Tourism Kenya Gold Award). Everything is solar-powered and there are genuinely no permanent structures – it is either removable or biodegradable. This means that the whole camp could be dismantled and within a season, the bush would take over and there would be no sign of anything left.
This pioneering camp appeals to keen wildlife enthusiasts who are environmentally aware and enjoy close cultural contacts with the local community. Porini Rhino Camp isn’t high-end luxury, but it is authentic in a beautiful, quiet corner of the Conservancy with a water hole and viewing platform which is exclusive to its guests. For us, the luxury was the experience. The tents are comfortable, and the furnishings are relatively rustic, but if you want to experience the bush and the animals without the likelihood of seeing other vehicles, and if you care particularly about good contacts with the local community, then you will love staying here. It is beyond beautiful, and very quiet, despite the wildlife all around. We saw jackals, giraffes, rhino and impala, all at home in their natural habitat, completely at ease.
As it was November, there was a chill in the air, so our camp staff boiled our water for some hot showers before a dinner of roast chicken and veg and steamed pudding – simple but delicious. Whisky in hand, we all sat by the fire and listened to the rhinos snorting by the water hole. The staff, all local, were genuinely friendly, and nothing was too much trouble. I got into bed snuggled up with hot water bottles and listened to the sounds of Africa around my tent whilst I drifted to sleep.
To really appreciate the wildlife work that Ol Pejeta is doing here, you really need to experience all the activities for yourself, so the next morning, we were up for an early morning game drive where we saw hyenas and their pups, buffalo wallowing in the mud, Thomson’s gazelles, many warthogs, elephants and giraffes, plus the Kori Bustard (one of the world’s heaviest flying birds).
Everyone here is still recovering from the loss of Sudan, pictured below, the last northern white male rhino, who died in March 2018 surrounded by the world’s press, at the age of 45 (the equivalent of 95 in human years). He was gently put to sleep, the decision having been taken due to his overall deterioration as a result of age-related complications. The two remaining northern white rhino are his daughter (Najin) and granddaughter (Fatu).
We met Zak, who has been looking after the northern white rhinos for 10 years, and whose childhood dream had always been to work with these majestic creatures, after hearing stories from his father, who worked as a fencer at Ol Pejeta. Najin is 30 years old, while Fatu is 19, and Zak points out how they communicate through smelling and snorting. “I would describe such sadness at losing him,” Zak says of Sudan. “I grieved, as we were losing a loved one, but he was feeling lots of pain. It was very stressful for me and all the team when I knew it was the day.” Zak is very aware of the impact that humans have on the rhino and their environment – both good and bad – and is unforgiving when it comes to poaching. “Please, no more poaching anymore,” Zak pleads. “The more money the poachers acquire, the more money they want, and there’s no end. But it’s just paper. You don’t need to kill animals for it.”
All hope for the survival of the northern white rhino now rests on a pioneering project into IVF techniques being conducted at a leading laboratory in Italy, backed by a group of scientists from all over the world. The Conservancy sent eggs there back in August. In September, Ol Pejeta announced that two northern white rhino embryos had been successfully fertilised. This development marks a turning point in the race to save the northern white rhino from extinction – but by no means does that mean that the species is saved.
The next morning, we went to Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, established with an agreement between Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Jane Goodall Institute. The aim is to provide lifelong refuge in a semi-natural environment to orphaned and abused chimpanzees from West and Central Africa. Over the last decade, Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary has been compelled to keep accepting chimpanzees rescued from traumatic situations – bringing the total number of chimpanzees in the Sanctuary to 37. Many are confiscated from cramped and unnatural living conditions, and many arrive with horrific injuries sustained from abuse at the hands of humans. Here at Sweetwaters, they get a chance to start over, and it is the only place in Kenya where non-indigenous chimpanzees can be seen.
We met Dr. Stephen Ngulu, pictured above, who is the head vet for all the animals at Ol Pejeta and whose work is diverse and sometimes dangerous. That said, his unrelenting passion for his work is obvious. He tells me that he loves working with wild animals, as they are highly intelligent but wonderfully unpredictable!
With 24-hour veterinary support and a stimulating quarantine enclosure, chimpanzees arriving at the Sanctuary are carefully nursed back to health. Chimps are, as it turns out, among the most challenging animals to treat because they are sensitive to immobilisation and susceptible to lung disease and pneumonia. When they are ready, they are introduced into one of the two large groups at the Sanctuary, who live in vast natural enclosures separated by the Ewaso Nyiro River. The chimps have set feeding times, and return to their indoor enclosures at night – but other than that, they spend their days exploring, climbing, socialising, and learning to be chimpanzees all over again.
Next, we went to meet the anti-poaching team, headed up by Emilio. His main concern is how big the poaching operations have become. “It’s a huge cartel,” he tells me, “and there’s lots of cattle rustling too, which we help with. But we have created a relationship with the community, and whereas before we had nothing, now we might get some intelligence, so we can warn the KWS, who come in.” The relationship is paying off, and the last poaching incident occurred two years ago. That said, Emilio and his team need more – more vehicles, more night vision goggles, more soldiers, more equipment, more dogs – specifically, springers, bloodhounds and Belgian Malinois. One suspects that they may have won the battle, but it is a long, hard road ahead to win the war.
The last word about my trip is from Ol Pejeta’s Managing Director, Richard Vigne. He follows on from Emilio, telling me that they don’t get the attention and resources that they used to. “It’s sad that it’s come to this,” he says. “The truth is that people are laying waste to the planet – we are witnessing the greatest extinction show. We have to find harmony for the health of the planet.” Of Ol Pejeta, he says that “we have developed an integration for land use as the root for creating conservation. If we can use the land and be productive, the chances are it will be more successful.” Here’s hoping.
If you would like to support Ol Pejeta Conservancy, then you can do so by making a donation or adopting a northern white rhino through Helping Rhinos – www.helpingrhinos.org.
For further information about Ol Pejeta Conservancy, go to www.olpejetaconservancy.org.
For further information about Porini Rhino Camp, click here.