10th January 2019 (Day 5)
Our second day at Ol Pejeta was an incredibly eventful day. We started off the morning with a game drive, where we were greeted with the most biodiversity I have ever encountered. Crowned hornbills, grey-headed kingfishers, white-bellied go-away birds and brown parrots were among the dozens of colourful birds we spotted with the help of Prof. Stuart Bearhop who was in our van today.
We were taking in watching all the stunning herbivores – reticulated giraffe, herds of plains zebra, Thomson’s gazelles and impala – when one of the drivers radioed our van to tell us they had seen cheetah! When we arrived at the spot, it seemed to have disappeared, and we continued searching to no avail. However, further ahead, one of us spotted a very cat-like tree trunk. A closer look revealed not just a cheetah, but also her extremely cute cub! I was astounded by the sheer beauty of these magnificent predators.
While marvelling at what we’d just seen, we noticed a few vans had stopped further ahead. A group of hyenas, not even 20m away from the road, with 3 cubs playing and chasing each other just made our day. A lioness and her cub and a white rhino and her baby – indicating a productive past year at Ol Pejeta – completed our best day so far.
Further to this, we visited a chimp sanctuary within Ol Pejeta which houses chimpanzees rescued from zoos and/or intercepted in illegal pet trade. One of the chimps, a 30-year old male brought to the sanctuary in 1995, took a particular liking to our group, following us around the enclosure and exhibiting a displaying behaviour.
Later in that afternoon, we attended a talk that the CEO of Ol Pejeta gave about the conservancy. Originally a cattle ranch, the park was established in 1996, and has since become one of the most modernly-run conservancies in Kenya. Their main focus is to increase the population of black and white rhino, with potential translocation plans to rhino-poor areas. Selective fencing around the park ensures the rhinos stay protected within Ol Pejeta, while other wildlife such as elephants and ungulates can enter and leave freely. This provides a system of wildlife corridors connecting Ol Pejeta with the national parks of Meru, Mpala and Mara, and ensures population connectivity and the continuation of natural migration patterns. Furthermore, Ol Pejeta runs an integrated land management system, where livestock cohabitate with wildlife. In this way, local community development, as the presence of cattle, wheat crops and herders in certain portions in the park maximise land use, contributes to the national economy. These increased revenues could potentially lead to expansion of the park area for their growing black rhino population.
Ol Pejeta is also famously known to contain the last two extant northern white rhinos. As they are both females (the last male, Sudan, died of old age in 2018), this subspecies is functionally extinct. Due to this, the conservancy have very tight measures to protect these animals from poaching, including fences and guard dogs, and local pastoralists and armed guards patrolling the area. Seeing Najin and Fatu and knowing these were the last two northern white rhinos left in the world was a humbling experience. I was struck with the true realisation of what it meant, and angry at our species for allowing such things to happen to our natural world.
However, there is hope. Sudan’s sperm has been conserved to potentially continue his legacy. Despite Najin and Fatu having reproductive issues and being unable to give offspring, IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) has been proposed using a female southern white rhino as a surrogate mother. This procedure is meant to take place later this month, and will be a big step in the right direction to bringing back this enigmatic species.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy was a perfect stop on tour of Kenya to see amazing wildlife and learn about hands-on conservation and where it could head in the future.
Sarita Mahtani-Williams is an MSc Conservation and Biodiversity student at the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus.
All photos by Alexandra Hoadley.
ah621 January 20th, 2019 Kenya