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Richard Vigne is the Chief Executive Officer of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa and one of the most successful enterprises in Africa. Helping Rhinos talked with Richard, ahead of our Shades of Grey - Seven Saviours of Black and White Rhino event on 15th March in London, to find out more about what it's really like to run a conservation success story.
HR: Can you tell us a little about Ol Pejeta?
RV: Ol Pejeta Conservancy covers 400km2 of land in Laikipia County, Northern Kenya. We're home to over 100 black rhinos. The Conservancy has managed to grow the black rhino population by 100% in 10 years, which is a huge contribution to global wildlife conservation.
Ol Pejeta wants to show that conservation can pay its own way, and contribute environmentally, socially and economically for the benefit of all. We integrate wildlife conservation with ecotourism and cattle ranching. We are a not-for-profit wildlife sanctuary, which means any profits made are reinvested back into the conservancy and community development programmes.
It is essential that land is used productively in conservation. We've created this model for conservation that not only preserves iconic species but also benefits local people. We aim to become an engine for sustainable development in this part of Northern Kenya. It is a model I believe can be replicated worldwide.
HR: How does Ol Pejeta work with the other conservancies in Laikipia? What about overseas?
RV: Increasingly Ol Pejeta is seen as one of the leading conservation organizations in Kenya and Laikipia. People now look to us to provide the muscle and impetus for collaboration across the Laikipia landscape, something we are glad to try and do. We are gaining international recognition for our work and have won a number of awards for the way we approach our tourism business.
HR: Are you planning any new tourism ventures/community initiatives?
RV: These are always in the pipeline and we will be revealing a new innovative tourism product towards the end of 2018, never before seen in Kenya. Watch this space! We will also be partnering with the Wilder Group to build a new camp to be opened in 2019 and we are constantly on the look-out for ways of developing and improving our product. We now offer a range of immersive "conservation experiences" as well as three new retail outlets and, by May, a newly refurbished Pelican House with a fabulous deck overlooking Pelican Dam.
HR: Why is conservation so important to you? And why rhinos?
RV: People often see conservation as saving cuddly animals. In fact, it is about making sure that the planet continues to remain habitable for humans and animals alike. And that is what is so fascinating about conservation - it is such a rich, complex, multi-faceted discipline that is endlessly interesting and never boring.
The continued existence of rhinos as an umbrella species - with all of the added complexity that entails - is a simple signal that conservation space is being created and sustained, something that is good for many other species, as well as the ecological processes that we humans depend upon such as flowing rivers and clean air. That's one of the reasons rhinos are important, notwithstanding the fact they are endlessly fascinating complex creatures that have evolved over many millions of years and therefore deserve our protection.
HR: What's been the best decision you've made? And biggest regret?
RV: Believing that Ol Pejeta could do something great from a conservation perspective when I took it over as a failing cattle ranch in 1996. I try not to have too many regrets…
HR: What's been your biggest challenge?
RV: There are a few! First, challenging mindsets in the ways that conservation has traditionally been done. As human populations increase, conservation practitioners must see that 'fortress conservation' doesn't work at the scale necessary to secure the ecological processes that we are dependent upon.
Second, finding secured habitat that rhinos can move about freely in. Rhinos are a risk. They are costly and can be dangerous, so securing land for them can be tricky. Ol Pejeta has 90,000 acres and we need to expand over the next few years as our rhino population is reaching its ecological carrying capacity.
Third, although the black rhino population has recovered since the late 1980s, there is still a poaching threat. We're holding a line against poaching. We're not quite turning the tide yet. The demand for rhino horn in places like Vietnam is still high. Rhino protection from poaching itself is also continuous, costly and dangerous.
Humans do not have the right to let extinction happen on our watch. We need to change how we consume and interact with our planet. The rate of extinction is the fastest it's ever been due to human activity. The time to draw a line in the sand has come.
HR: Thank you Richard. We look forward to hearing more about Ol Pejeta at our Shades of Grey event on 15th March in London.
Hear more from Richard and our other inspiring speakers at our Spring Talk; Shades of Grey - Seven Saviours of the Black and White Rhino on 15th March in London.
author: Kate Lee