In March 2018, the web was abuzz with news about the demise of the last male northern white rhino named Sudan. Being the last male of his subspecies, Sudan’s death implied extinction. EXTINCTION. Like many others, I followed the news, shed a few tears, and then moved on with “life”.
Earlier this year, I temporarily moved to a tiny town called Kisumu in Western Kenya. During our journey up North to the Laikipia County of Kenya, we planned ourselves an opportunity of a lifetime. I say lifetime because the chance to see Najin and Fatu, the last two northern-white rhinos, will no longer be available in a few years. Given both rhinos are females, there are no chances of natural procreation and the species is at the verge of extinction.
While meeting Najin and Fatu may not qualify as the “top safari experience in Kenya,” visiting them was immensely important to us. One, for all that brutality we have caused to the species to bring their population from thousands to just two, they now deserve all our attention. Second, the money these visits generate directly goes into the research being conducted to save the species through scientific methods like IVF.
Most importantly though, we wanted to meet the last two northern white rhinos to put a face to extinction, to feel the intense pain of the loss of a species, to say our goodbyes, and to be able to hold ourselves responsible for what we have caused to their world.
When we made our way into their secure enclosure at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Najin and Fatu were peacefully grazing on the green grass swaying their heavy bottoms side to side. They looked magical. As the conservationist began describing the story of their near extinction, my heart sank into a black hole. Reading about extinction is one thing but looking at it was another.
I could tell that Najin and Fatu knew that they were alone now. If either of them walked away, the other would get frantic and run towards the other. At no moment, they left each other’s side.
The third rhino, a female Southern White Rhino who stays with them, is teaching them to be wild. Unlike Najin and Fatu, the southern white rhino was born in the wild and is strong enough to hold a pregnancy. If all goes well, she may be the surrogate who would save the northern-white subspecies. Only time will tell.
The conservationist patted Najin and praised her every now and then. “Good girl”, he would say when Najin made an attempt to move on her weak legs that has become crooked from walking on cemented floors in the Czech Republic Zoo. When he called out to Fatu, she walked steadily to feed on the fresh carrots he brought her. “They are domesticated,” he said, “we are teaching them to be wild.”
For a moment there, it felt as if I were looking at people living the doomsday in silence. There was a painful cry in the air and everybody avoided each other’s gaze, even the rhinos. I was very aware of the fact that I was watching extinction unfold.
If you happen to be planning a trip to Kenya especially with young children, let that be to bid farewell to Najin and Fatu. My words have limited power to explain the life-changing lesson that lies in this experience. It revived our understanding of extinction, environment, and loss.
How to get to Ol Pejeta Conservancy?
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is located an hour from Nanyuki Town in Laikipia County of Kenya. Rent a self-drive car or one with a driver from Nairobi and make the 4-hour journey to Ol Pejeta.
You will need a car to drive inside the Conservancy so make sure that you rent one for the conservancy even if you are using public transport to reach Nanyuki.
Budget Tip: We recommend renting a car from a local car rental company based in Nairobi which will turn out to be cheaper than renting from international car rentals.
We used the services of HikenPic travels based in Nairobi. In the dry season, a decent low clearance SUV will do although you may need a basic 4X4 for the rainy season. Expect to pay 6000 KSH (60 USD) for a basic car and 8000 KSH (80 USD) onwards for a 4X4 per day, excluding fuel. You may need another 5000 KSH (50 USD) for fuel to make the entire return trip.
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Where to stay?
Ol Pejeta Conservancy has a lot of classic African camps to choose from. You can pitch your own tent at a campsite for around 6000 KSH (60 USD) per person per night.
For something more comfortable, opt for the lodging at The Stables within the conservancy. This comes at 9000 KSH (90 USD) for a couple for the night.
If you want to splurge (a lot!), the Sweetwaters Serena Camp is an option located just ten mins away from the rhino enclosure.
Make all reservations for Ol Pejeta on their own website at olpejetaconservancy.org
Budget Tip: Our recommendation is to stay in Nanyuki town and take a full-day ticket into the conservancy instead of living inside. We bunked at a beautiful shepherd’s hut style accommodation called One Stop Nanyuki for 6000 KSH (60 USD) for two (book directly with them for the cheapest price).
Entry fee for Ol Pejeta
Entering Ol Pejeta is not a cheap affair, frankly. For a foreign adult, the rate is 85 USD per person just to enter through the gates. The cost of visiting Najin and Fatu is separate from this. However, the entry fee does allow you to go on a self-drive across the conservancy where you’ll see plenty of elephants, black rhinos, zebras, giraffes, wild buffalos, impalas, and more.
While the gate entry doesn’t need to be booked in advance, it is important that the northern white rhino enclosure visit is booked in advance as only 6 people are allowed at a time, just twice in the day. They’re limiting human interactions with Najin and Fatu to help them adapt to the habitat.
Note: If you’re on a work permit/special-pass in Kenya, you only need to pay 22 USD for the entry. As an East African citizen, this goes down to 10 USD.
Other Experiences at Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Ol Pejeta also runs a project to rescue troubled chimpanzees and houses them in its comfortable living conditions. Here, you will meet Poco, the chimpanzee with almost no sight, another with Alzheimer’s’, and many others struggling with brutal past or unforgiving health issues.
Another charm at Ol Pejeta is Baraka, the blind black rhino, who lost sight on one eye to cataract and another to an animal attack. Baraka now stays in a 100-acre land all to himself managing life on the senses of smell and touch. We found him colliding with trees as he walked up to the conservationist to get caressed. My favourite moment was watching Baraka being fed by this little girl who seemed to be melting in love with him and so was Baraka.
I believe that we are alone in this cosmos and there is nobody out there, at least yet. Losing a species is a loss that makes us even lonelier in this infinite space. Perhaps, the northern white rhinos would be born again in a petri dish or maybe they will succumb to extinction. The fact that we led them to this point will undeniably continue to torture us till we exist.
Please remember that touching, feeding, or patting wild animals is completely unethical. It causes irreversible harm. When visiting a conservancy where rescued animals or endangered species live, you may be offered opportunities to express care to the animals. Please make sure that you strictly abide by the rules and regulations laid out by conservationists. At the same time, do a little research on the conservancy to rule out unethical practices. Read this article by Nomadic Matt on How You Can Stop Animal Abuse In The Tourism Industry.