In Touch With Wildlife
In December 2014, Vitale witnessed Samburu warriors from Sera in northern Kenya encounter rhinos for the first time on a visit to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in another part of the region. Rhinos were poached off Samburu land years before.
The animals had once been a common sight in the semi-arid region, but the last ones were killed by poachers about 25 years ago. Now, a small population is being reestablished there from existing herds in Kenya’s Lewa, Nakuru, and Nairobi National Parks.
Twenty rhinos are being rounded up, shipped in crates, and released within the newly established Sera Community Conservancy in Samburu territory. At least fourteen of the animals have been moved so far, and biologists hope the animals will reproduce and fan out across the dusty landscape.
“Most Kenyans have never seen a live rhino,” says National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale, who has been on the ground documenting the project.
“Some thought they would have spots and others thought their horn would be flexible, like an elephant’s trunk.” (Learn more about rhino airlifts)
Organizations behind the effort include the governmental Kenya Wildlife Service and nonprofits Northern Rangelands Trust and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. (See more of Vitale’s work.)
The animals’ new home, Sera Community Conservancy, is locally owned and operated by Samburu people. To deter poachers, the rhinos will be watched over around the clock by the park’s new community rangers, who will receive support from the project’s other partners. (Learn about the controversy surrounding rhino trophy hunts.)
“This will be the first time in East Africa a local community will be responsible for the protection and management of the highly threatened black rhino, signaling a mind shift in Kenya’s conservation efforts,” the Northern Rangelands Trust writes on its website.
“Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife but very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the frontlines of the poaching wars,” Vitale adds.
There are about 4,000 to 5,000 black rhinos left in the world, down from 70,000 in the 1960s. (See "Rhino Wars" in National Geographic magazine.)