From the Brink of Extinction: The Remarkable Journey of Rescuing the Rhino – a Tale of Poaching, Conservation, and Scientific Breakthroughs at Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Rhino

Rhino – Just a century ago, over 500,000 rhinos grazed within the African and Asian grasslands. The plight of these beloved herbivores has since become indicative of our global wildlife crisis. Facing poaching and habitat loss, their population has plummeted by 95% to a mere 27,000 worldwide.

Today, majority of the remaining rhinos reside in protected areas, like Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, ensuring their safety from poachers who prize their horns for traditional Asian medicine.

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The northern white rhino subspecies stands on the brink of extinction with just two individuals, both living under stringent security at Ol Pejeta. However, recent scientific efforts have given rise to hope. Using In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), scientists successfully impregnated a Southern white rhino, marking the first-ever successful use of IVF in rhinos. This progress offers a significant step toward rescuing the northern white rhino from extinction.

In the beautiful shadow of Mount Kenya, Ol Pejeta Conservancy stretches across 360 sq km of open grasslands and lush bush, roughly the size of Philadelphia or Dublin. This thriving ecosystem, sitting at a comfortable 1,800m above sea level, supports around 100 mammal and 500 bird species.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy, originally a cattle ranch owned by infamous billionaire Adnan Khashoggi, was converted into a small wildlife sanctuary in 1988. It’s now under the ownership of non-profit conservation organization, Fauna and Flora International, and has evolved into the largest is home to black rhino sanctuary in East Africa.

Alongside protecting a range of iconic African wildlife, the Conservancy protects 165 critically endangered black rhinos, 52 southern white rhinos, and the last two remaining northern whites. Protection measures involve the continuous monitoring by an armed rhino protection squad and a wider team of rangers and a K9 unit. Although it’s not cheap, costing US$850 per month to protect a single rhino, the approach is effective, with no rhinos lost to poaching in over five years.

The most cherished among the Ol Pejeta rhinos are Najin and her daughter, Fatu, marking the last two remaining northern white rhinos. Braving the odds, scientists from the international Biorescue Project have successfully created 30 frozen northern white embryos. Since neither Najin nor Fatu can carry a pregnancy due to age and health issues, the plan is to use southern white females as surrogates.

Successful IVF in rhinos remains a challenge, but after 13 attempts with southern whites, the scientists triumphed, marking a significant step towards the goal of birthing a new northern white Rhino. Despite the subsequent loss of the mother and fetus to an infection, the progress represents a glimpse of hope for the northern white rhino to bounce back from the brink of extinction.

In the meantime, planning a visit to Ol Pejeta in 2024 presents a chance to meet the last two northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu, before that opportunity disappears forever.