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Travel to Nairobi


The Last Stand of the Northern White Rhino, Nairobi

24 January 2016

Oi Pejeta Conservancy is home to the last male northern white rhino on the planet.

His name is Sudan and such is the continuing threat from poachers that this gentle creature lives under 24-hour armed guard. At the grand old age of 42, Sudan has already exceeded the average life span for the species by seven years.

Until recently there were just four northern white rhinos left in the world. With the death of Nola, a 41-year-old female, at San Diego Zoo in November 2015, three remain, all living at Ol Pejeta. As things stand, we’re witnessing the extinction of the species. Sudan is too old to mate with the two remaining females Fatu and Najin, and so, you would think, the story ends there. Yet somehow, in this most tragic of scenarios, there is a glimmer of hope. The team at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, headed by CEO Richard Vigne, is determined not to give up the fight.

The northern white rhino is just one of many species on the brink. Across the planet we’re experiencing extinction events on an unprecedented scale. According to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), destruction of natural habitats and the illegal wildlife trade are the root causes. It is estimated that in the past 40 years alone more than 40 per cent of the world’s wildlife has been lost, and humans are largely to blame. If we continue at the current rate, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out the end result.

Rhino populations in particular have suffered massively, not only at the loss of their natural environment, but also at the hands of poachers. With rhino horn demanding ever-increasing bounties, particularly in the Far East where it’s mistakenly perceived as having medicinal properties and attributed among other things as being a cure for cancer, there is a seemingly insatiable demand.

“This is all about education,” explains Vigne. “The people who demand and consume rhino horn must take full responsibility for the poaching pressure that rhinos face. It’s simple. Stop buying it. Then poaching could stop overnight. Rhino horn is keratin – the same substance that forms fingernails. It has no medicinal powers whatsoever. It cannot cure anything.”

The reality too is that criminal gangs who feed the illegal trade in rhino horn across Africa and Asia are the same gangs that traffic drugs and people. Rhino horn, for these people, is simply another revenue stream. As Vigne puts it, “They have no scruples. They’re criminals, pure and simple, and will use any method to achieve their aims.”

Faced with a seemingly impossible situation for the northern white rhino, the team at Ol Pejeta is pinning hopes on a revolutionary form of IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). The call to action has spread worldwide, with scientists and genetic experts gathering recently in Vienna to pool together their knowledge in the hope of finding a solution.

The process is akin to sailing into uncharted waters, as IVF has never before been tried with a rhino. “As we speak trials are going on to develop IVF protocols in southern white rhinos, the closest living relative of the northern counterpart,” says Vigne. In what could now, with hindsight, be seen as a conservation success story the southern white rhino itself was on the brink of extinction a little more than a century ago. At one point less than a hundred were left. They now number in excess of 20,000, albeit in game reserves and protected areas.

With just two surviving female northern white rhinos the decision to initially trial the new IVF protocol on southern white rhinos therefore makes perfect sense. Vigne says, “Once the IVF technique has been developed the challenge will be to replicate the process on the two remaining northern white females at Ol Pejeta.”

The new IVF procedure and trials will be expensive, time-consuming and complex to achieve. According to Vigne, if fertilisation proves successful and results in a northern white embryo, “it will then have to be stored in liquid nitrogen until such time as the process to successfully implant the embryo into a surrogate southern white rhino female has been developed”.

Clearly time is not on the side of the experts and Vigne admits that the odds are most likely stacked against both them and the species. Naturally too, funding is key, resulting in the launch of the #MakeaRhino (gofundme.com/makearhino) campaign, the brainchild of Ol Pejeta’s marketing manager, Elodie Sampere. The minimum amount required to fund the revolutionary IVF programme is estimated at US$800,000.

“It may sound like a lot,” says Sampere, “but this has never been tried before and every penny raised goes directly to the cause. If we’re successful, anyone who has donated will have played a vital part in saving the species. The bottom line is that without money this process will go nowhere.”

Naturally, visiting the 90,000-acre conservancy is the ideal way to not only see and interact with the unique wildlife and environment to be found there, but also to witness first-hand the invaluable work being carried out. Ol Pejeta can justifiably claim to be a true once in a lifetime experience and its base of Kenya was awarded Best Safari Destination at the 2015 World Travel Awards.

Ol Pejeta is not just the home to the world’s last three northern white rhinos. The conservancy also includes the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, while Sweetwaters Sanctuary, also situated at Ol Pejeta, is the only place to see chimpanzees in the region. It also hosts a spectacular variety of other species such as lions, leopards, elephants and endangered Grevy’s zebras.

“Of course the best way to support wildlife is to go on safari,” says Vigne. “Conservancies such as Ol Pejeta are perfectly safe and here you get to experience conservation you can touch.” Highlights of a visit include meeting the northern white rhinos, bottle-feeding a baby rhino and lion tracking. Vigne sums it up by saying, “It’s not just a safari; you’ll be part of what we do here.”

Conservation, community and communication lie at the heart of the project. Recent high-profile visitors, such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, reflect Ol Pejeta’s commitment to using technology not only in the fight against the ever more sophisticated methods of poachers but also as a conservation tool and something that benefits the indigenous community as a whole. New innovations include plans to offer virtual safaris for those unable to visit in person.

“The vision is that someone sitting at their desk in London or New York will, in time, be able to travel virtually around the conservancy,” says Vigne. Increasingly solar technology is being utilised in a drive to go ever more green and reduce emissions.

Alongside all this lies Ol Pejeta’s concept of Integrated Land Management, which allows commercially bred cattle to occupy the same area as wildlife. Through careful organisation the system contributes to fixed costs that offset financial problems that can be caused by fluctuations in visitor numbers.

According to Vigne it’s “an ongoing learning curve. We’re also discovering that we can use our cattle to create a better habitat for wildlife through increased biodiversity. For example, we now use closely packed herds of cattle instead of controlled fires to clear areas of rank grass, making way for new growth. It’s all about securing the wild areas of Africa in a productive way with obvious benefits for the entire community in perpetuity”.

The issues being addressed at Ol Pejeta in one way or another affect us all. The plight of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on the planet, is a stark reminder of the often irreversible damage that greed, corruption, ignorance, lack of concern for the environment and disregard of our fellow creatures is inflicting upon the world.

The message from Vigne is stark and simple. “We must change the way in which we consume. The natural resources of this planet are finite. The truth is that the entire global community bears responsibility for what is rapidly becoming a tidal wave of extinction. There is still time to halt this process but we must act now. We need to change the way we live.”