Klaserie River Sands

Rhino conservation and IVF at Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Written by: Rachel from Bountiful Safaris

I visited Ol Pejeta ranch with Bountiful Safaris and it was among the best park experiences I’ve had in Kenya so far. Situated on the equator between the foothills of the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya, the 110,000 acre Ol Pejeta is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. It is home to 106 rhinos, which is 17% of Kenya’s total black rhino population, out of an estimated 620 black rhinos in the country.

It is also home to 23 southern white rhinos. The conservancy provides the rhino with the most favourable breeding conditions in an attempt to pull the species back from the verge of extinction. In addition to this, the sanctuary has specially constructed ‘game corridors’ so that all animals are free to come and go but restricts the movement of the rhinos. They have put knee high posts in the ground close together that prevent rhinos from moving out of the conservancy, thus increasing their protection from poachers.

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There are two species of rhino native to Africa, the black and white rhino. It is thought that white was a mis­translation of the Afrikaans word ‘wijd’, which means wide in English, denoting their big, square mouth. White rhinos are grazers and their wide mouths aid in eating grass. Black rhinos, on the other hand, have a prehensile or hooked lip for feeding on trees and shrubs.

White rhinos have bigger heads and longer necks than their black counterparts. They are also slightly taller with longer tails. The white rhino is built slightly differently, with their hips lower than their shoulders, resulting in a sloped shape to their back in contrast to the blacks that have dipped backs.

There are two subspecies of white rhino: the southern white rhinoceros and the northern white rhinoceros. Of the two subspecies, the northern white rhinoceros is in dire straits – virtually on the brink of extinction. The northern white rhinoceros once occurred in Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Uganda. As late as 1960, there were more than 2,000 northern white rhinos remaining. In 2005, four northern whites still roamed Garamba National Park in the DRC, but they haven’t been seen since 2007, and the subspecies is now assumed extinct in the wild.

As of June 2015 there were only five left, with three of these residing in Ol Pejeta. In July 2015, Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic lost one of the five, and in November 2015, San Diego Zoo lost the other – the Ol Pejeta three are now the only northern white rhinoceros left on the planet!

Meet Sudan

The conservancy is the only place where you can get up close with the last remaining northern white rhinos. It is ­a humbling, sad, and at the same time magnificent moment.

The most famous of these individuals is Sudan. He is the only surviving male northern white rhino. He was born in south Sudan and spent most of his life in a zoo in the Czech Republic, and in 2009 he finally came back to the ‘motherland’. He did not make this journey alone; he was accompanied by one other male, Suni (now deceased) and two females Najin (Sudan’s daughter) and Fatu (Najin’s daughter).

During my visit to Ol Pejeta I was privileged enough to visit Sudan in his enclosure. Sudan comes across as tame and rather placid. White rhinos are generally less aggressive than black rhinos and I suppose after all those years in a zoo he must be used to humans. This should however not prevent you from exercising caution, at the end of the day he is still a wild animal.

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As the only remaining male northern white rhino in Ol Pejeta, Sudan is under armed guard 24/7, but is too old to mount a female. The two remaining females, Najin and Fatu, also have health problems that prevent them from reproducing the old-­fashioned way. Scientists and conservationists in a last­ ditch attempt to save the species have harvested sex cells from the individuals and are planning IVF (In vitro fertilisation) in a related southern white rhino surrogate. The effort is expected to take more than a decade and comes with its own complications since no one has ever successfully completed IVF on a rhino.

The introduction of armed guards has greatly reduced the incidents of poaching at Ol Pejeta. It does however remain an ever present threat, as recently as April 16th this year armed poachers killed a seven year old black rhino right inside the conservancy and earlier in February a 12 month pregnant rhino was also killed.

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As a not­-for-­profit organisation, the ranch mainly survives on funds from tourism, donations and also has a cattle ranch. Securing the wildlife from poachers, especially the rhinos, is their most costly expense (running into millions of dollars), so every bit helps.

Projects like Ol Pejeta deserve all our support as they strive to ensure the rhino’s survival at all costs for future generations to witness their majesty. Visit these amazing creatures in Kenya with Bountiful Safaris.

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