The privately owned Ol Pejeta Conservancy is home to the last remaining northern white rhinos in the world. It’s also a place you can visit, stay and learn more about the plan to save the species
It makes you feel positive when you see so many of them,” says Abde, our guide. He’s referring to the three rhinos relaxing in a pool of mud, completely oblivious to the fact that we’re sitting in an idling vehicle purring beside them. Beyond the mud-happy animals, there’s another crash of black rhinos in the distance chomping through bush.
I can’t remember the last time I saw rhinos so impossibly relaxed in the presence of humans. On my last rhino sighting, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the archaic animals kicked up dust and disappeared into the bush before I could even grab my camera. Our guide back then remarked that even though rhinos are known to be aggressive animals, the rise in poaching across Africa has led them to become even less comfortable in the company of humans.
The reason the rhinos in front of us haven’t trundled into the distance is because they don’t feel threatened. This is Kenya’s Laikipia region in the privately owned Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa and the home of the last two remaining northern white rhinos. Since Ol Pejeta’s inception as a conservancy (in 2004), the population of black rhinos has risen from around 20 to more than 120. It’s one of the few places in Africa that can boast an increase in the number of these endangered animals. Usually it’s the contrary.
“Seeing this many rhinos is not normal, it requires hard work,” says Annik Mitchell, head of tourism at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which requests a park entrance fee to help fund the conservation projects. “We want people to understand that there’s a challenge involved.”
It’s thanks in part to this park fee that Ol Pejeta can sustain its conservation projects and anti-poaching unit, which is one of
the boldest on the continent: a brigade made up of paramilitary trained rangers, a unit of bloodhound dogs, anti-poaching drones, a digital radio system with GPS tracking capability as well as support from the surrounding community, which acts as a buffer.
“Our whole basis is rhino protection,” says Annik. Yes, at Ol Pejeta, you can go on regular game drives and spot animals that aren’t rhinos, such as elephant and cheetah. And yes, you can stay in a lodge like the modest Ol Pejeta Bush Camp located on a riverbed overlooking the overgrown bush with its six solar and generator powered tents, strewn with Moroccan rugs and old, slouchy couches (ideal for rainy day reading). It’s similar to any other African reserve, conservancy or national park… except for the fact that Ol Pejeta’s main concern is preservation. “It’s the conservation message that is our biggest strength,” says Annik, “the one thing we’re most proud of.”
This is also what the conservancy has become recognised for. As the home of the last remaining northern white rhinos on the planet, Ol Pejeta has received a fair amount of attention in recent months. Especially following the death of Sudan, the last remaining male northern white rhino who died from natural causes last year. There are now only two females left, Fatu and Najin, who live in a secure area of the park and are available for visits (which happen twice daily).
The happy and absurdly friendly northern white rhinos galumph about, shoveling pellets and carrots that are fed to them by the head rhino keeper, Zachary Mutai. As happy as they may look, the saddest part about seeing the last two of this species is knowing that they are unable to conceive. It’s a tragic tale, but one that has the opportunity to take a turn for the better.
Over recent months, scientists at Italy’s Avantea institute, a lab for biotechnology research and animal reproduction, has been working to create a northern white embryo using the frozen semen of a northern white male and ovum of a female. If this is successfully created, it will be inserted into a southern white rhino who will act as a surrogate. “The chances of this working are 50/50. We really aren’t sure what will happen,” says Zachary, who hasn’t yet lost hope. It’s this constant optimism, from Zachary and all the staff at Ol Pejeta, that really drives the conservancy’s success. The northern white rhinos are on the verge of extinction, but no one will let the species go without a fight.
Attempting to save this species isn’t the only preservation weight on the conservancy’s shoulders, even with its staunch anti-poaching unit and supportive surrounding community, it has lost rhinos to poaching. We know this because, unlike other national parks and conservancies around Africa, Ol Pejeta releases the number of rhinos in the reserve. “If one gets poached, everyone will know,” says Abde.
Every rhino that’s poached (or dies of natural causes) receives a tombstone in the rhino graveyard that sits on an empty expanse of land within the conservancy. On an empty plain lies a garden of 18 name-engraved tombstones that pay respect to the fallen rhinos. Under a solitary Morani tree sits the saddest of them all, a tombstone embossed: Sudan, The Last Male Northern White Rhino, 1973–2018. It’s as gut-wrenching a site as any and a poignant reminder of how critical the poaching situation has become.
On this grey afternoon, the light is beginning to dim and the dark clouds sit heavy in the sky, just like the weight in my stomach. “To have an emotional connection is more than a poster,” says Annik, “we want people to feel emotionally engaged but hopeful”. The graveyard will certainly leave you feeling depressed, but the conservancy’s other projects and activities – such as feeding Baraka, a blind black rhino (the poster boy for his species), visiting the chimpanzee sanctuary, lion tracking, bush walks and community and cultural visits (which involve seeing the different projects the park fee has helped fund) – will leave you a lot more optimistic.
“People feel much more vested when they’re engaging with animals and leave with more knowledge about conservation,” says Annik. Which is precisely how I leave; with the image of the relaxed rhinos luxuriating in a pool of mud, Baraka’s giant lips stealing a bush from my hand, and the affable northern white rhinos scoffing carrots, blind to the fact that they are the last two of their kind.
WHEN TO VISIT
Like any safari experience, the best time to go is during the dry season between July and October, and December through March. The area experiences a rainy “green season” from around April through early June. All activities are still on offer, but it just means a greater chance of rain.
Given it’s one of the safest havens for rhinos, it’s one of the safest places for humans too.
The park has a 24-hour entrance fee, which allows day visitors to explore the property (around R1 250 per vehicle).
If you want to stay over, the conservancy has five campsites and rental includes firewood and toilet facilities.
The Ol Pejeta Bush Camp also offers full board accommodation, scheduled day and night game drives, guided walks, sundowners, bush breakfasts, transfers to/from Nanyuki Airstrip and a laundry service. asiliaafrica.com
The conservancy’s Morani’s Restaurant has a take-away menu serving meals next to the campfire, including samosas and traditional Kenyan stews. If staying at Ol Pejeta Bush Camp, the lodge offers three meals a day.
All activities can be booked through the conservancy or lodge. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy website is extremely helpful with all the information you need prior to travelling olpejetaconservancy.org
SAA flies direct to Nairobi from Johannesburg daily. Visit flysaa.com
It is roughly a 3.5-hour drive from Nairobi to the conservancy. (If flying in on private charter, the closest airstrip is Nanyuki, which is an hour’s drive away.)