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Animals Saving Animals

Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya is striving to save one species of rhino from extinction – with the help of man’s best friend

Do you know the difference between a black and a white rhino? For the opportunity to see first-hand how the eating habits of each species has shaped its distinctive look, travel to the foothills of the Aberdare Hills in the shadow of Mount Kenya. You will not only discover the answer but witness one of the most incredible conservation stories in Africa.  

Home to the last two northern white rhinos on Earth, Ol Pejeta is a private wildlife conservancy that straddles the equator and has provided a haven for endangered animals since 2004. Here, the two female white rhinos and 140 critically endangered black rhinos co-exist in safety as they roam Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau.  

Thanks to round-the-clock security, which we will come to later, the white rhinos are free to graze on the tufts of grass with their broad, flat wide lip with almost no hair. Whereas the smaller black rhinos with more pointed lips browse the leaves, shoots, and branches on the 36,420-hectare not-for-profit estate.

Beyond the Call of Duty

Since 2008, a rapid response dog unit reinforces anti-poaching efforts across the conservancy. From puppies to protectors, man’s best friend is going beyond the call of duty to guard the rhino population with a 100 per cent success rate.  

Rhino conservation operations are performed by two units; a general rhino monitoring and management unit (rhino patrolmen) and a specialised anti-poaching unit which also serves the main security arm of the organisation and that is also, the National Police Reserve (NPR). The two units operate seamlessly – the patrolmen undertake general wildlife surveillance and collect monitoring data during the day while the NPR operates predominantly at night and is responsible for the rhino protection.  

“You can’t conserve without security,” said Ol Pejeta’s Daniel Mwaniki of the dog team. He explains the K9 unit is made up of six dogs which include two bloodhounds and four Dutch Malinois. Each dog is trained for a certain role, and they currently have three trackers; two search and one assault.  

The trackers follow the scent of poachers for two to three days while the search dogs look for weapons, and the assault dog is used if there is an ambush. An elite dog can adapt to all three roles.  

“Our main work is at night – as poachers work at night – so we use those dogs as they are better at seeing than us. A dog can also smell and see more than human beings, so it is very good to have a dog,” said Mwaniki.  

“Ol Pejeta has the highest number of black rhinos in East and Central Africa and without this security team, there would not be a single rhino left so this team is the pillar of conservation,” he said.  

The Ol Pejeta dogs were originally trained and classified by the organisation Animals Saving Animals. Founded in July 2016, ASA now provides specialist anti-poaching dogs and handler training to conservancies and national parks throughout the world.  

Haven for Wildlife

Ol Pejeta not only focuses on saving the second-largest land mammal but prides itself on being at the forefront of conservation innovation. It manages a successful livestock programme despite the challenge of having one of the highest predator densities outside the Masai Mara.  

The conservancy is home to the endangered African wild dog, oryx, cheetah, and bat-eared fox. Ol Pejeta also supports the people living around its borders, to ensure conservation translates to better education, healthcare, and infrastructure for the next generation of wildlife guardians. 

Vision becomes a Reality

So how did a working cattle ranch become a role model for rhino conservation?  

In 2003, Ol Pejeta was purchased by Fauna and Flora International with a US$15 million donation from Arcus Foundation, a philanthropic organisation founded by Jon Stryke. Working with Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the money helped to secure the open savannah and convert it to a national land trust ensuring the protection of its existing wildlife. The foundation also gave US$12 million to fund capital and development costs at the conservancy.  

Six years later the white rhinos arrived in Kenya from Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. There were originally four: Najin, Fatu, Sudan, and Suni. All previous breeding attempts had been futile, and the hope was that the climate and rich grasslands of the Kenya highlands would provide them with more favourable breeding conditions – but the rhinos did not produce any offspring.  

In 2014, Suni died of natural causes. His death left Sudan as the only northern white male in the world capable of breeding. In early 2015, checks by vets from the Czech Republic dealt another blow – neither of the females was capable of natural reproduction, and in 2018, Sudan died.  

However, there is hope for the future as vets have now concluded that artificially assisted reproduction is a possibility. The future of this subspecies, which used to inhabit parts of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, now lies in the development of in-vitro fertilisation and stem cell technology that has never been attempted in rhinos.  

Ol Pejeta Conservancy together with Dvůr Králové Zoo is now raising funds to stop the northern white rhino from becoming extinct. 

Nature Trails

During a visit to Ol Pejeta, you can join nature trails that include camouflaged shelters discreetly dotted along the Ewaso Nyiro River. Enjoy close encounters with wallowing hippos to more than 500 species of birds including the Great Egret. Guides are stationed at the hide and will introduce you to the indigenous plants and explain their values in local medicine. Other activities you can enjoy within the conservancy include nocturnal night safaris, lion tracking, and horse riding.  

As they say in this part of the world: “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”  

Conservancy remains at the heart of Ol Pejeta. By partnering with international veterinary experts, they ensure data is gathered regularly on each animal. Steps like this ensure they remain a role model for rhino conservation. Let’s hope one day we will see a northern white rhino calf placing its broad, wide lip on the grass of this East African savannah. 

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Ol Pejeta

Visit Ol Pejeta, home to the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa and the last two white rhinos on Earth