Ol Pejeta & The Wonderful World of Rhinos (and Chimps!)

From six o’clock on Thursday, several hundred people gathered at the Royal Institute of Great Britain in London’s Mayfair for an event organised by UK-based charity, Helping Rhinos. The evening, “Wonderful World of Rhinos”, was in aid of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya, a reserve officially established in 2004, and now home to the last three northern white rhinos on Earth. I was fortunate enough to be there; to meet with people for whom conservation is a profession, a passion or both. A drinks reception, and a chance to buy some beautiful rhino-inspired artworks, preceded brief presentations by wildlife experts Simon King OBE (of “Big Cat Diaries”) and Giles Clark, and Ol Pejeta’s CEO, Richard Vigne, whose talk informed much of this article.

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Simon King OBE speaking at the Royal Institute of Great Britain on Thursday 23 March 2017. He spoke not just of the importance of Ol Pejeta’s rhinos, but the very real difference each and every one of us can make in helping to preserve the natural world for future generations

The evening concluded with the auction of a number of fabulous pieces, including “The Last Three” (photo below), which sold for an astonishing £19,000. Proceeds from the event – comfortably in the tens of thousands of pounds – will go to Ol Pejeta, and be put towards the continued protection of the reserve’s wildlife. I’ve already written on the PBD about the problems facing Africa’s rhinos, as well as the very different fates of the northern and southern whites. So I thought it best to relate here some of the fantastic work being done at Ol Pejeta, and how it serves as a model for conservation across Africa.

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“The Last Three”. The original painting by wildlife artist Karen Laurence-Rowe (centre left), which depicts Sudan, Najin and Fatu – the last three northern white rhinos on Earth – fetched  £19,000 in the evening’s auction. Despite not bidding for the original, I did manage to get hold of a rather nice limited-edition print!

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What was not long ago a largely barren cattle ranch in central Kenya has been transformed, within two decades, into one of the country’s most lauded conservancies: Ol Pejeta. 400 square kilometres of Kenyan bush, river, and plains, with the highest densities of wildlife in the country outside of the Maasai Mara. This success has been built on three pillars, each reinforcing the other: rescue, protection, and education. A circular model is key to upholding these pillars, with 100% of generated funds being ploughed back into conservation and community development.

Involving local communities in the conservation effort has proved a crucial part of the jigsaw, with Ol Pejeta’s team striving to foster an understanding of the intrinsic and economic value of Africa’s natural heritage. As well as welcoming hundreds of Kenyan children to the reserve each year, Ol Pejeta’s education programme supports infrastructural development in local schools. These include water/sanitation projects, construction of kitchens, dining halls, classrooms, office blocks, computer and science laboratories, and dormitories. It’s likely that some of the conservancy’s future rangers will have been educated in schools supported by Ol Pejeta.

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A class of Maasai children, educated in a school supported by Ol Pejeta. Helping to educate the younger generations in all aspects of life, including wildlife conservation, is part and parcel of the Ol Pejeta project. Photo Credit: Africa Geographic / Julia Migne

What’s more, the conservancy’s team works to integrate cattle farming within the reserve, maintaining traditional ways of life alongside wildlife tourism. Where conflicts exist between Ol Pejeta’s wildlife and local farmers – whether that’s elephants destroying crops or fences, or predators harassing livestock – the conservancy’s team works with local communities to resolve the problems. Meetings are regularly held with farmers and pastoralists in the area. In return for farmers’ restraint (where they might otherwise kill a rogue elephant or lion), Ol Pejeta can work with the Kenyan Wildlife Services to move wildlife out of certain areas, and even to trim the tusks of fence-breaking elephants. It is a showcase of how conservation works best – local communities, NGOs and government bodies with mutual interests pulling together for mutual benefit.

Protection of the conservancy’s wildlife is naturally paramount, and Ol Pejeta is no different from many other reserves in its use of anti-poaching patrols (including anti-poaching dogs), fences, remote camera technology and aerial reconnaissance. Vigilant monitoring has seen the conservancy’s black rhino population rise dramatically from 4 individuals in the early 2000s, to over 100 today. This has only been made possible by the dedication and perseverance of Ol Pejeta’s rangers and wider team. Thanks to them, Ol Pejeta’s rhino population continues to go from strength to strength; just this week, news is out that a female black rhino (Jasho) has given birth to her second calf!

As the largest black rhino sanctuary in eastern Africa, we are at the forefront of the battle to save Africa’s rhinos from extinction.”  Richard Vigne, CEO Ol Pejeta Conservancy Ltd

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A black rhino, a notoriously ill-tempered animal at the best of times, photographed (from a safe distance!) in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Photo Credit: Ol Pejeta

As well as being the last refuge of the northern white rhino, and Kenya’s largest black rhino sanctuary, Ol Pejeta is also home to the country’s only chimpanzee population – 39 rescued chimps cared for by the wonderful staff of the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Sweetwaters provides lifelong protection to rescued or orphaned chimps from across West and Central Africa, fulfilling a role previously held by a sanctuary in Burundi which was forced to close in the mid-1990s. Sweetwaters’ chimps are victims of the barbaric illegal pet trade; many have been confiscated from cramped cages, have human-inflicted injuries, or psychological problems as a result of their treatment. These rescued chimps are rehabilitated at Sweetwaters, given the protection they need and allowed to flourish. They are as much the flag-bearers for Ol Pejeta as the rhinos, and just as important to protect.

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Two (no, three!) chimps at the Sweetwater Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Based in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, it is home to 39 chimps – our closest living relatives – many rescued from shocking situations. Photo Credit: Ol Pejeta

It’s worth reminding ourselves, once in a while, that for all the devastation that we humans cause to our natural heritage, there are people out there who dedicate their lives to protecting it.  The evening at the Royal Institute served to do just that. It was truly inspiring to learn about the work being done at Ol Pejeta, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to support such a passionate and caring team.

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You can find out more about Ol Pejeta – and how you can support work being done there – through its website, where you’ll find information on how to volunteer, donate or sponsor some of the reserve’s iconic wildlife. Of course, the reserve is a popular safari destination too, and well worth a visit!

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