Ol Pejeta: Rhino Conservation & Night Game Drives in the Kenyan Highlands

The radio crackled and buzzed. More static. We had driven 4 hours tracking a pride of lions and had met with no success spotting them.

Our spirits waned like the setting sun. With no lions in sight, Gilbert Tonui, our trained guide from the Conservancy, suggests that we head back to camp before nightfall.

Sunsets at the equator are quick affairs. In minutes the sun dips under the horizon and the landscape transforms. Eerie.The howl of hyenas punctuating the silence.

As our cruiser reverses to head back, we hear a pop. The driver exclaims and speaks urgently in Swahili. We had a flat in the middle of the bush!

The husband and I are smack in the centre of Kenya. We are on a game drive tracking lions in Ol Pejeta, a conservancy by the foothills of Mount Kenya, and known for its rhino conservation efforts. The equator runs across these lands.

Once a working cattle ranch, these 360 sq kms of grasslands are now a wildlife sanctuary managed by FFI (Flora and Fauna International), an NGO headquartered in Britain and with a rolodex of patrons like Prince William and Sir David Attenborough.

We had arrived in Ol Pejeta after a 4 hour, rambling drive from the capital, Nairobi.

With daylight fast receding, we stepped out of the 4×4 landcruiser and watched as our driver and guide worked to replace the flat. I stretched my legs and gazed around at the parched, brown grasslands. A lone acacia tree stretched out in front of us.

In the distance, a committee of vultures presided over the entrails of a buffalo, that likely died from dehydration. With scarce rainfall, much of Ol Pejeta is experiencing drought.

Far out along the horizon, a herd of giraffes grazed the leaves of the acacia tree. A trio of jackals trotted by. The bush is teeming with wildlife.

It is in moments like this, that I contemplate the insignificance of our hurried lives and am overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe.

Our guide flags another passing vehicle, also ferrying a group of tourists returning back to camp and asks for help. We make conversation with the family and are envious to learn that they had spotted a pride of lions the previous day.

With our cruiser fixed and an apologetic guide, we head back to camp for the night. Gilbert seems more disappointed than us about the turn of events.

Our tented camp, at Serena Sweet Waters, overlooks a watering hole and we are audience to the wide array of birds and animals that stop by for a drink.

One afternoon, the husband spots an impala right outside our tent. On a clear day, we can see Mount Kenya towering in the distance.

Our tent is equipped with a plush, queen sized bed and a bathroom with hot, running water powered by solar panels.

In the evenings, hot water bottles are slipped under our blankets to keep us warm. Up in the highlands, winters get chilly. That night the temperature dipped to 10 degrees Celsius. With no central heating, we hugged our water bottles and dozed off with dreams of the African savannah.

The next day, we are up before daylight and are served hot cups of masala chai, an influence of the sizable Indian community in Kenya’s cuisine.

Kenyan cuisine is packed with flavour. At nights, we were served Nyama Choma – grilled meat seasoned to perfection, chapatti and kachumbar – a bread and salad brought in by the Indian community. For lunch, we had Ugali – a starchy cornmeal served with soups and stews. And milky, sweet chai to round off every meal.

As our cruiser makes its way through dirt pathways, we pass a long train of buffalos ambling to a watering hole. The first rays of sunrise light up the horizon. A warthog, or Pumba in Swahili, scurries past. A herd of zebra gallops across as our vehicle approaches. And we make our way into the rhino conservation area.

The rhino conservation area is manned by multiple caretakers in their signature olive green uniforms.

The pride of the enclosure is the last 2 northern white rhinos in the world, Najin and Fatu, a mother and daughter duo who are afforded 24 hour protection against poachers.

These 2 rhinos live in limbo, the last of their species, and unable to reproduce as the last male, Sudan, died in 2018.

To save these species from extinction there is an ongoing effort which leverages IVF. A last Hail Mary. These rhinos have had multiple rounds of stimulation to harvest their eggs and to fuse them with sperm collected from male northern white rhinos.

Any viable embryos will be implanted in a surrogate, a close cousin, the Southern White Rhino.

We approached Najin and Fatu and listened as their caretaker, Zachariah, told us their story. These rhinos were born in captivity in a zoo in Czech Republic and had been transported to Kenya in the 70’s.

Mild mannered, they ambled towards us. Grey blocks that loved back rubs. We quizzed Zachariah on why they were called white rhinos.

“Dutch settlers called these rhinos “wijd” for their wide mouth. The English misunderstood this to mean the colour white and called them white rhinos. And they named the other species Black rhinos”

A classic case of colonial miscommunication. Both species of rhinos are solid greys.

We bid goodbye to the two rhinos and Gilbert drives us to a rhino cemetery, a memorial for rhinos that had been victims to poaching. Gravestones lie solemnly positioned under the shade of a tree.

I peered in close to read one:

“Ishirini. Female Black Rhino.

Born 17th May 1996

Died 22nd Feb 2016

Rhino likely killed by use of poison arrows. The security team found her writhing in pain with the horns already chopped off. She was 12 months pregnant. “

Today, the Kenyan government has shoot on sight orders to combat poaching. Poachers use sophisticated equipment, are armed and operate in the cover of darkness.

Over the years, the anti-poaching units at Ol Pejeta increasingly rely on technology to combat poachers – thermal imaging sensors along the perimeter of the park to inform them of intrusions, drones and K9 units to track them.

They’ve seen success and have had zero poaching incidents over the last 5 years.

Later that day, Gilbert takes us to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sancutary. Chimpanzees are not native to Kenya.

When a rescue center in Burundi had to be closed in 1993 because of a civil war outbreak, the Chimpanzee Sanctuary was established with an agreement between the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Jane Goodall Institute.

The Chimpanzee enclosure is separated by the Ewaso Nyiro River and houses 35 chimpanzees, most rescued from horrific living conditions.

We walk along the Ewsao Nyiro river. The flora is different here. Green and lush. Unlike the arid, open bush that covers most of Ol Pejeta.

Gilbert takes us along the riverbanks skipping over the many places where electric fences, erected to prevent human and hippo encounters, are broken and the electricity doesn’t work.

We search for hippos in the muddy, opaque waters. It is noon and the strong rays of the sun have warmed up the area considerably. I take off my jacket. The hippos are most likely cooling down at the bottom of the river.

For our last night in Ol Pejeta, we had planned a night game drive, when predators are active and out on a hunt. Most parks and conservancies restrict movement within the park after sunset.

Ol Pejeta is one of the few that offers a few intrepid souls the chance to explore the conservancy after dark. After dinner, bundled up in thick sweaters and jackets, we boarded our cruiser. We are handed additional blankets. It is pitch dark outside.

The only light is from a flashlight that Gilbert shines into the bush as we pass by. With the cold air nipping at us, and the cozy blanket we are under, I doze off…to be awakened around midnight by the sound of radio chatter. Something out of the ordinary has been spotted!

The cruiser reverses course and hurtles forward at breakneck speed. We hold on for dear life. Finally, we slow down and the driver edges slowly into an open field. Gilbert motions for us to come forward and points with his flashlight.

Right outside are two lionesses and their cubs. Next to them lie the bloodied remains of an unlucky buffalo. The hunt has been successful. Tonight the mums and their cubs have plenty to feed on.

“Look, he is learning to hunt”.

We watched enthralled as one of the cubs tries biting into the buffalo meat, much larger than him. He gnaws and nibbles at the bones, sharpening his teeth.

The lionesses lie sprawled out on the field, unimpressed and disinterested in the amount of attention they are garnering. Every few minutes, one of them gets up and picks at the meat before returning to rest.

The young cub, with bloodied face and tiring of the meat, comes back to his mum and suckles at her teats along with his sibling. Close up they look like harmless kittens.

Hard to believe that in a few months they will have the strength to rip a human apart.

Soon it is time to go back and leave Ol Pejeta. As our cruiser makes its way back to camp for the last time, we hear the howl of hyenas. Once the lionesses have their share, the hyenas will pounce on the remains.

And the circle of life will continue, long after we leave these Kenyan highlands.

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