The afternoon sun beat down on our heads, causing the sweat from my hat to sting my eyes. I'd had to zip up my Gore-Tex jacket, which was the only top I had of the right dark sand color to match my zip-off pants. Anything brighter or different, and I might not make it back to my room alive that night.
I was on rhino patrol on Ol Pejeta, a 90,000-acre conservation facility some four hours north of Nairobi.
The huge Central Kenyan plains of Africa, marked in the distance by the three jagged peaks of Mount Kenya to the east, spread out before us. Next to me strode a local photographer and two guards, both armed with guns. My photographer and I were armed with cameras and a serious case of the jitters.
He looked over his shoulder at me and grinned broadly.
"If a rhino charges, run up the closest tree," he said, slightly breathless from the pace, high grass and uneven ground.
We both looked in all directions. One small tree, barely over five feet, hugged the horizon in the far distance.
Four of us. One tree.
I'm 67. On my best day, I cannot outrun a charging black rhino, whose ground speeds can hit 34 miles an hour. The fastest Olympic sprinter, the absolute best in the world, can run 28 mph. That's without all the gear, the high grass, uneven ground, and four other people determined to get to that tree ahead of you. All of them less than half your age.
The photographer and I cracked up.
A moment later, the guard on my left pointed. "There," he whispered. "Mother and baby."
We called it in. Too far for me to photograph. But close enough to stand in wonder.
Several times a day, the rhino patrol heads out to count and report on the locations of the rhinos in this conservation powerhouse. Here, the future of Africa's black rhino population is in the hands of dedicated scientists, conservationists, and the community which surrounds Ol Pejeta.
Today, the black rhino population, which numbers 120, has been steadily growing, up from 20 in 1993. Rhinos breed rather slowly, and the inevitable effects of disease and poaching have been ongoing battles for Ol Pejeta. In 2018, there were no poaching incidents. That milestone is a landmark not only for Ol Pejeta, but also for the community of largely Kikuyu farmers which surrounds the conservancy. The close, collaborative relationship between the two has become an award-winning world model in how wildlife and populations find ways to both exist and prosper in close proximity into the future.
Several rather towering historical characters have owned this land since the 1940s. Those familiar with British history in Africa will know of Lord Delamere, familiar to many through the writings of Karen Blixen and the movie of her life Out of Africa. She ran a successful cattle ranch here. One infamous owner, Adnan Khashoggi, was a billionaire Turkish-Saudi arms dealer.
By the 1960s, poaching had decimated game populations in the area. While killing elephants and rhino was outlawed in 1973, numbers continued to plummet. In 1988, Lonrho Africa, which had been a previous owner, established a game preserve which expanded and evolved into what is now Ol Pejeta.
Flora and Fauna International bought the property in 2003. Today, Ol Pejeta's daily operations are managed by Ol Pejeta Ranching, Ltd., which is 100% owned by their conservancy. What distinguishes Ol Pejeta from so many other non-profits in so many ways is how it is structured. The ranching company operates the agriculture and tourism functions in order to create a surplus, which is then used exclusively for reinvestment in the conservation and community development.
Because of this model, those who donate to conservation are assured that every single penny of that donation goes directly into conservation, and not mined for operating costs.
Ownership is also protected by this model, which includes a wholly volunteer board. The lands have recently expanded in order to accommodate the growing rhino population.
I was able to experience it all first-hand during a visit in February 2020, just before the world's flight schedules starting grinding to a halt. There is far more to see and experience, which is why I plan to return.
I stood in the corral a few feet from the churning mass of bodies. The calves, separated from their mothers, heaved in one direction and then another each time I moved. On the other side of the fences their mothers grazed calmly, knowing that their offspring would be joining them momentarily.
The veterinarian, Charles Mathenge, waved his arms. His round face gleamed with sweat as he leaned forward. The mass of brown bodies surged forward. At the head of the group, one calf at a time jostled along a fenced pathway. They also stepped in some water so that when they entered the upcoming shed, they wouldn't be startled by the spray.
That spray would protect their lives. Domestic and wild animals alike carry ticks which spread infectious diseases such as East Coast Fever. Calves can die from the fever, which can severely impact local farmers. The disproportionate losses are borne by small, local farmers such as those who live around Ol Pejeta.
The disease is curable, but prevention is far more effective. Immunized cattle are released to graze in high-density tick areas. Those ticks which feed on immunized cattle can't spread disease, which also benefits the wildlife population.
Ol Pejeta ensures that the local farmers have access to veterinarians as well as the up-to-date research being conducted by Ol Pejeta. This not only improves their cattle farming outcomes but also continues to educate them about disease control and breeding.
Part of this involves understanding how climate change has affected the spread of ticks. More rain and warmth mean more ticks, and more ticks potentially mean more disease. Regular immunization protects not only local farmers and the Ol Pejeta cattle investments, but also wildlife, which draws tourists. The more the organization can engage, educate, and support local farmers, the more those local farmers support the organization. This is just one of the ways that OP successfully engages the surrounding communities.
Steven Ngulu, an OP veterinarian, has a cough. He thinks it's the flu, so he didn't join me when I viewed the chimpanzees at feeding time. Human diseases are communicable, so Steven kept his distance.
Steven's getting plenty of on-the-job training at Ol Pejeta. A quiet, pensive man, his love for animals led him to the field. He'd received part of his veterinary education at the San Diego Zoo and through University of London courses.
Plenty of challenges demand his time. Sweetwater is a rescue center dedicated to rehabilitating chimps that have been traumatized or injured through human capture or abuse. Baby chimps can be delightful until they turn into incredibly strong and destructive adults. Those chimps stolen from the wild and raised as pets end up either killed, rescued, or donated here, where they have a chance to learn proper behavior in their own society.
But first, they often have to be nursed back to health, first physically, then emotionally. Sweetwaters opened in 1993 when a civil war in Burundi forced the closing of a local rescue center. Formed though an agreement among the OP Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the Jane Goodall institute, Sweetwaters has expanded over the past ten years to house some 36 chimps.
Steven and his staff nurse these animals back to full health within a quarantine enclosure designed to provide them with the kind of normal stimulation that allows them to rehabilitate. Then they are released into one of the two large groups where they are thoroughly socialized.
Here they learn hierarchy and grooming behaviors. They form political alliances and negotiate détente after fights over territory, food or power send some of the lower-ranking chimps sprinting for safety—with an angry dominant male close behind.
When the attendant came with handfuls of fruit and sweet potatoes, the chimps set up quite the raucous chatter. As he moved up and down the line, the dominant males caught the tossed fruit first. Just as quickly the attendant fired a piece of fruit to a very young chimp lurking in the back, screaming for dinner. This distraction allowed the lowest-ranking chimps to get adequate food without having to wait or fight, and it kept the adults busy begging for more and focused on the attendant.
Steven told me that one thing that Ol Pejeta wanted on their staff were fresh perspectives. Doctors who could learn with the animals and with the staff as they developed ideas, conducted research, and tried new methods to help save and protect animals. This is one way that Ol Pejeta ensures that they have open minds, people willing to try new things and who aren't hobbled by assumptions that may work in a lab but not in the field. Like Charles and his cows, Steven is passionate about his work.
As the sun began to drop, the chimps were invited to walk a small boxed pathway to the large building which houses them for the night. They calmly moved through the small open tunnel as we watched, then disappeared into the large building where they would sleep in safety, in the company of their own kind.
Early on the morning of my second day, I met with Ian Muiruri, who heads up the entire Community Development Program, or CDP. The CDP is a broad-ranging set of services, programs, and outreach which ranges from education to agriculture to veterinary care to community health. CDP is the second most important role that OP plays, and because of this commitment, OP enjoys an extraordinary level of community support. Part of the reason is that farmers have been able to significantly increase their earnings when they collaborate with OP.
I visited a local girls' school where a greenhouse produces vegetables enough not only to feed the kids but also pay for school fees for some who need support. My guide Kiama, and Judy, who works in the public relations office, drove me through the bumpy roads and green fields to visit Kamande, a tall, smiling man who lives in the Chuma community.
Kamande was delighted to welcome us to his farm. Behind him, several local men were working on home improvements while his wife ran to embrace us in welcome. He strode to the fields which surrounded his house. Kiama, who works for CDP, translated for me.
Kamande told me that his potatoes weren't producing very well, so he reached out to Kiama for help. In short order, he had new strains of plant to test in his fields. Not only did the plants thrive, but both the number of tubers per plant as well as the size of those tubers had much improved. As he spoke, he dug into the ground near my boot to show me the expanding potatoes.
He grinned, happily, as he next walked us to the small shed where he kept huge bags of beans in the shade. Pinto beans and kidney beans spilled out of the tops of the large bags, also the result of switching to better strains. Word spreads, of course, and other farmers have followed suit.
Kamande is just one of many who have benefitted from the CDP's work in improving agricultural output. Those who are using OP's procedures and products can nearly double their output per acre, from $800 Kenyan shillings to $1500 shillings.
When local farmers can nearly double their yields on the land they already have, they aren't competing with wildlife to farm yet more land. OP helps with fencing and human-wildlife conflict to reduce crop loss and dangerous interactions.
When OP's research, procedures, investment in health, veterinary care, and education (among many other programs) benefits the community as a result of the wildlife refuge, the community becomes committed to the wildlife.
Ol Pejeta's many programs have become a model of excellence, leading other organizations to study and partner with them to replicate their success. They have found many answers to how a growing population doesn't have to mean dwindling wildlife. In fact, just the opposite. The more Ol Pejeta Conservancy thrives, so do the communities which share her borders.
That's good news for Africa, and for her wildlife.
Julia Hubbel is the author of two books, a prize-winning journalist, and adventure athlete. Her primary interest is in adventure sports in the farthest reaches of the world, learning about indigenous cultures and discovering the last of the world's pristine places.
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