Photograph by Ami Vitale
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In 2009, the Northern White Rhinos Fatu (right) and Sudan were flown from a snowy zoo in the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in a last ditch effort to have them breed and live out their lives in warmer climates. There are only seven of these rhinos left in the world.
Photograph by Ami Vitale

Ami Vitale: The Last of the Northern White Rhinos

Five years ago, I heard about a plan to airlift four of the last Northern White Rhinos from a zoo in the Czech Republic back to Africa. It sounded like a storyline for a Disney film but in reality, it was a desperate, last ditch effort to save an entire species. There are only seven of these rhinos left in existence. When I saw these huge, hulking gentle creatures surrounded by smokestacks and factories in the zoo outside of Prague, it seemed so unfair that we have reduced an entire species to this.

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In December 2009, the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya airlifted the last four breeding age Northern White Rhinos from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. As of 2014, there are only seven of these rhinos living in the world.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya worked hard to make the move possible and the rhinos were flown on a cold, snowy night in December, 2009. They landed and were brought to roam “free” on the savannas of Kenya at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The hope was then, and now, to breed them. The air, water, and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa. Failing successful breeding, they will be cross-bred with Southern White Rhinos to preserve the genes.

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Yusuf, a keeper, keeps tracks of three baby black rhinos at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Nicky, the largest of the three, is the baby of a rhino who is partially blind so she is being hand-raised.

Recently, I went back to visit the four rhinos who had been airlifted to Kenya: Sudan, Suni, Najin and Fatu. It warmed my heart to see them nuzzling on the open plains, but I was reminded of a tragic truth by the team of armed guards who are there to protect them from poachers. Poaching is not slowing down, and it’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the current trajectory of killing continues, rhinos, along with elephants and a host of lesser known plains animals, will be functionally extinct in our lifetime. Organized by sophisticated heavily armed criminal networks and fueled by heavy demand from newly minted millionaires in emerging markets, poaching is devastating the amazing mega-fauna of the African plains.

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Security teams get off a helicopter at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. A renewed surge in poaching in Africa is threatening the survival of critically endangered species and Lewa has had to dramatically increase security. These mobile, anti-poaching patrols look and act like an infantry unit.

Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the conflict between heavily armed poachers and increasingly militarized wildlife rangers, but very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the frontlines of the poaching wars and the incredible work that is being done to strengthen them. These communities may hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals.

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Randisa Kisio is employed by the Northern Rangelands Trust. “We are thankful for the tourists who visit us here, for it is they who pay the scouts who protect wild animals. If not for them and the people who opened the lodge, it would still be as it was in the past.”
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Julius Lokinyi is a former poacher who now works to protect elephants in Northern Kenya. Most poachers are desperately poor and are attracted to the enormous amount of money that can be obtained for horns and ivory on the black market. Working to protect animals gives them an alternative livelihood.

The Nature Conservancy has been helping the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) form “community wildlife conservancies.” These conservancies benefit the indigenous communities, and help locals understand that high-end tourists are far more valuable to them over the long term than the short-term gain of poaching. The hope is that if their welfare, education and livelihoods are being jeopardized when a rhino or elephant is killed, local communities won’t let it happen.

We can often forget that the best protectors of these landscapes are the local communities themselves. Their efforts to preserve community cohesion is ultimately the best immunization against forces that threaten both their wildlife and way of life.

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Women collect water at West Gate Conservancy in Northern Kenya. “Before we had this well, we would walk for many hours every day just to get water. Sometimes it was not safe but…this has made our lives more secure.” This place was once the site of massive tribal infighting. Now communities are using tourism to motivate and persuade local people that there is a future in community-led conservation.

Ami Vitale is working to produce a documentary about the indigenous communities of Northern Kenya on the front lines of the poaching wars. She also hopes to deliver a series of visual storytelling trainings to these communities of the Northern Rangelands Trust so they can learn to tell their own stories. Visit her project funding site here.