Following the demise of the world’s last northern white rhino at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Rachel Rigby recalls her visit there soon before he died – and hopes that his death may be a stimulus for wider conservation efforts. Picture credit Sabine Louys
After three decades of being away I was lured back to Kenya last December, driven by a desire to see Sudan, the last (and ageing) male northern white rhino in the world.
Sudan was living on the 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy, that lies at the foot of Mount Kenya. Ol Pejeta has won many conservation awards, is operating a white rhino IVF project and has a chimpanzee sanctuary, so that was even more reason to visit.
On arrival we went directly to the Ol Pejeta Safari Cottages, a new addition to the reserve. After a delicious lunch we set out to the endangered species boma, where we were greeted by armed guards. I was pleased to see the rhino were heavily protected.
We saw Sudan through a wire mesh fence. It was not possible to go into his enclosure as he was suffering from large sores on his ageing legs. The guard didn’t want me to see his poor health, but it was clear even then that Sudan was not going to live much longer, no matter how well looked after he was.
It was a strange thing watching him eat slowly, while monkeys stole morsels of his food, knowing he was the last of his kind.
Sudan was standing steady on the ground as the guard explained to us that the sores on his legs were the result of standing on concrete for years in a Czech zoo. Sudan had been captured in the Sudan at two years old for a circus, ending up in the Dvůr Králové Zoo. This had ensured his survival however, as poachers wiped out the other 700 existing northern white rhino across Uganda and Sudan.
Sudan’s majestic and handsome presence permeated his being, and I couldn’t help but feel sad that humans have caused the death of such a noble species.
After seeing Sudan we were taken to the enclosure where the last two female northern whites were grazing — Sudan’s daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu.
The San Diego Zoo, the Leibniz Institute and Embryo Plus, collected semen from northern white rhinos while they were still alive and have been doing IVF with the eggs of the northern white females. The female of a different subspecies, the southern white rhino, will have to be a surrogate mother as Najin and Fatu both have physical ailments preventing them from carrying a pregnancy.
After watching the rhinos roam for a while we left to visit another enclosure of endangered animals, particularly the Grevy’s zebra and Jackson’s hartebeest. The Grevy’s stripes are noticeably thinner to those of the more common Burchell’s zebra.
Ol Pejeta protects 114 black rhinos — 16 per cent of the Kenya’s population of the species — and 26 southern white rhino. Amongst these was a blind black rhino called Baraka (meaning ‘blessings’ in Swahili), who was one of the first rhinos born on the conservancy. We fed Baraka, stroking his horn and his sandpaper-like lips, while pushing grass into the mouth of this prehistoric, magnificent creature.
That evening, while sipping sundowners beside the jeep, a black rhino appeared a few metres away from us. It moved slowly past the car without a glance in our direction. I stood in complete awe, as Michael, our driver, explained that since rhino operate more by smell than sight and as we are downwind, it probably didn’t even know we were there.
The next day we visited Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a refuge for animals rescued from captivity and the bush meat trade. Afterwards we made a trip to see Richard van Aardt, head of livestock. He explained how Ol Pejeta used to be a working cattle ranch in colonial Kenya. People were convinced that wildlife could not cohabit with domestic livestock but Ol Pejeta has proven this wrong. Most of the profits from the Ol Pejeta cattle operation, as well as entrance fees, help to fund the rhino conservation activities.
On the way back to camp we stopped at a rhino memorial site (pictured below), set up to commemorate the rhino that have died at Ol Pejeta. It is here where Sudan will be buried and a memorial ceremony held on 31 March, 2018.
As Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta, says: “We on Ol Pejeta are all saddened by Sudan’s death. He was a great ambassador for his species and will be remembered for the work he did to raise awareness globally of the plight facing not only rhinos, but also the many thousands of other species facing extinction as a result of unsustainable human activity. One day, his demise will hopefully be seen as a seminal moment for conservationists worldwide.”