Rhino keepers Mohammed and Esagon pose with Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros in the world. // © 2015 Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Feature image (above): Born in South Sudan, Sudan was caught and sent to Dvur Kralove Zoo before arriving to Ol Pejeta Conservancy for a "Last Chance To Survive" breeding program. // © Ol Pejeta Conservancy
When it comes to Kenya’s safari destinations, stories of the Masai Mara’s epic wildebeest migration and Samburu National Preserve’s “special five” usually steal the thunder.
But, there’s something these areas of Kenya — as well as the rest of the world — don’t have.
The nonprofit Ol Pejeta Conservancy is home to the world’s last male northern white rhinoceros, Sudan. The 135-square-mile private wildlife conservancy is about a three-hour drive from Nairobi, near the town of Nanyuki, at the foot of Mount Kenya on the equator.
Known as the “last man standing,” Sudan became the only male in the subspecies following the death of another male northern white rhino in December 2014. In 2009, 42-year-old Sudan arrived at Ol Pejeta from the Czech Republic, where he was living at a zoo.
Of the world’s four remaining northern white female rhinos, two live in Ol Pejeta alongside Sudan.
If lucky, groups on safari in the conservancy might see one of the rhinos. Ol Pejeta offers a special tour of its Endangered Species Enclosure where guests meet northern white rhinos, as well as their dedicated keepers. The 700-acre endangered species enclosure also protects the Grevy’s zebra and Jackson’s hartebeest.
Rhino encounters of any kind are a special treat, as poaching in the 20th century has made these animals extremely endangered. Safari guests at Ol Pejeta have particularly high chances of rhino-spotting, since the conservancy is home to 23 southern white rhinos and 105 black rhinos.
Not only is Ol Pejeta the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, it’s also the exclusive place in Kenya to see chimpanzees. Opened in 1993, Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary is currently taking care of 42 chimpanzees, all rescued from traumatic situations. Visiting the chimps is a free perk for guests at the conservancy from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
A late-afternoon game drive at the conservancy was the opening act of my weeklong-safari with Abercrombie & Kent. We spotted white rhinos and black rhinos, some old and some young, as well as some with their horns removed for protection. On this drive, we also spotted zebras, giraffes and even a lounging lioness — the lioness remained cool as we, grown men and women, struggled to keep it together.
“You are very lucky to have seen both white and black rhinos on the same game drive, and on your first drive too,” the guide told our group.
He was right. Ol Pejeta generally spoils guests in all regards, from Big Five animal sightings to food and accommodations. It’s also pretty cool to straddle the northern and southern hemispheres, and guests can pose by a sign announcing the presence of the equator with Mount Kenya in the background. Of course, pose with discretion, since animals swing by this area, too.
Ol Pejeta can also be a good spot for those who need to be eased into the tented camp experience. One of the six camps at Ol Pejeta is Sweetwaters Tented Camp, which features accommodations with their lockable doors — a unique amenity among Africa’s tents, since they are usually accessible with only a quick unzipping. There are paved stone walkways, and some are lit at night (still, all guests will be escorted by a staff member). Rooms face the open bush, and though they are kept secure by an electric fence, it’s not unheard of for an animal to hop over for a quick hello.
It’s really all anyone could want from a safari vacation; plus, funds go to the great cause of supporting the 40-person team of rhino guards, including those who watch Sudan 24 hours a day. Guards are the lone barrier between the rhinos and poachers, who are tempted by the high price they can receive for rhino horns — reported to be up to $75,000 for a single kilogram of horn dust in countries such as Vietnam and China.
A fundraising campaign through GoFundMe has raised nearly $106,000 (of its $117,000 goal) to support the guards who protect Sudan and Ol Pejeta’s other rhinos. The emergency campaign was created to offset the sharp decline in tourism to Eastern Africa, largely a result of misconceptions about the proximity between Kenya and Western Africa countries stricken by Ebola.
However, Kenya is farther from Ebola-stricken countries than many countries in Europe. And it’s the one place in the world to see the Samburu special five, the wildebeest migration and, of course, the last male northern white rhino.