Ol Pejeta Conservancy (OPC) is home to the largest population of black rhino in East Africa, and conversely, the last three northern white rhinos in the world. It is an area of about 400 km2 in the Laikipia region of northern Kenya. It was started by a consortium of philanthropic investors in 2004 and is a not-for-profit business, i.e. it reinvests all of its earnings back into conservation and into local community development. OPC’s aims are simple; to become an engine for the sustainable development of northern Kenya, to show that conservation is not something that requires massive subsidy but can be made to pay its own way in a modern economy, contributing economically, socially and environmentally for the benefit of all.
Helping Rhino is proud to partner with Ol Pejeta and will support them in working towards achieving their goals in conserving the rhino, protecting all other endangered species and supporting local communities.
Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta talks to Helping Rhinos CEO, Simon Jones about the successes of OPC to date, the vision ahead and the daily challenges:
Rhino species across the planet are heavily threatened by poaching as a result of demand for their horn. Horn is traded as a commodity now worth more than its weight in gold. In places such as Vietnam it is used by a small urban elite as a status symbol, in powdered form, to cure hangovers after a big night out!
The black rhino, in this case the Eastern black rhino, is our signature species. Although we are home to all other wildlife species that you would typically expect to find in an East African context, we now hold the single largest population of black rhino in East Africa, numbering over 100 individuals. This makes us one of nine ‘Key 1’ populations in Africa and therefore a very significant population from a continental perspective.
In total there are 650 black rhino in Kenya, which may sound a small number but in fact it’s a massive recovery from the low of 250 that the population fell to in the late 1980s. Overall there are around 5,500 Eastern black rhino left in the wild. The Western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011. OPC is also home to a small founder population of Southern white rhinos, the most numerous of the five rhino species, and the last three remaining northern white rhinos left on planet earth.
Ol Pejeta has a record of success in rhino population growth, from just four Eastern black rhino in the late 1980s to more than 100 since 2015, a record that has been achieved with much heartache and at great cost, not only financial cost but in human lives too. Conserving rhinos in this day and age requires an incredibly sophisticated and expensive security apparatus and it has to operate effectively on a 24/7 basis. It is not an easy task. 30% of the Conservancy’s turnover is spent on protecting our rhino populations and we live constantly on a financial knife-edge. For the same reason fewer and fewer people are willing to accommodate rhinos on their land and this has become as much a threat to rhinos as the poaching crisis.
That said, Ol Pejeta is fast becoming a victim of its own success, reaching its ecological carrying capacity for rhinos. The challenge now is to find more space for expansion. It does exist and has the potential to demonstrate conservation as an engine for change and stability in community owned areas. Making conservation of wildlife and wild places valuable to the everyday lives of poor people who have other priorities and who often see wildlife simply to be eaten or poached for profit is the key challenge of our time. It is our responsibility therefore, to make conservation something that people choose to support because it provides benefits and is worthwhile. With local people onside we can deal with issues such as poor livestock quality, livestock overstocking, the cheap politics and illegal arms that currently plague us.
The truth is, wherever you are in the world, if humans see no value in what wildlife can offer them, it will have no part to play and will be removed and forever it will be lost.
For me therefore, that is the most important role that OPC can play. When we created the conservancy, we decided against everybody’s best advise, to try and maximise our land productivity by integrating our cattle operations with wildlife tourism and rhino conservation. We were told it would never work, tourists don’t pay to see cattle, cattle can’t be profitable amongst wildlife etc. Well, we proved them all wrong. It can be done and now we have one of the most successful enterprises in Africa. And it’s successful not only because it secures wildlife populations, but because it uses land productively.
As well as preserving rhinos, we produce food, we pay tax to the national exchequer, we employ close to 1,000 people, including local pastoralists, and we don’t wholly depend on handouts from donors. In short we are politically relevant and we are a conservation model that is being used, slowly, to transform the fortunes of northern Kenya and indeed, other parts of Africa.
But the challenges for rhino conservation remain enormous. Natural recovery for the northern white rhino is almost impossible and we are forced down the route of IVF and possibly stem cell technology with costs estimated at many $millions. If we succeed this will only be saving one species amongst the many thousands of species currently threatened by human activity across the planet. The absolute truth is that if we humans do not urgently change the way we interact with planet earth and the way we consume, we will soon be left with a home that is almost totally bereft of wild things and wild places and we will be much the poorer for it.
So we need to change.
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