Taking a walk on the wild side...
On our Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos project
Rachel Batley joins Earthwatch’s efforts to Save Kenya’s Black Rhino. Read about her experiences.
Rhinos have inhabited the Earth for 60 million years, and today are perilously close to extinction. The black rhino in particular has gone through the biggest deliberate assault on a single species of mammal in the world's history. The main cause of decline is poaching for horns which are used in traditional medicines in China and as handles for ceremonial daggers in the Middle East. Poaching is carried out by armed bandits who are ready to risk their lives for tuppence... when tuppence is a fortune. In Kenya, the price on a single rhino’s horn is worth 5 years of salary to a local!
It’s not surprising then that the black rhino has become a leading symbol for conservation, and so I was incredibly privileged to be taking part in this vital expedition, along with 4 other enthusiastic volunteers.
We arrived to a desperately parched Kenya, suffering from the worst drought in years. With cracked earth, empty riverbeds, and tragically many animal carcasses in the parks, our cause felt ever more poignant. It was certainly a relief when the first drops of rain fell in the second week, closely followed by a burst of green shoots on the land.
The project was based at Ol Pejeta reserve, plonked in the middle of the Kenyan wilderness, in a Big Five area, with spectacular vistas of Mt Kenya’s lofty peaks at sunrise. Think classic Africa: expansive skies, a thousand stars at night, herds of beautiful animals, our truck leaving trails of dust in the sun, thorny scrub bushes, colourful birds and things that go bump in the night! This really was wilderness. It was not difficult to fall in love with Kenya.
The camp was homely, with several thatched rondavels around a main building and the place teemed with wildlife. The cook served up some great meals, we were spoiled with daily clothes washing, and hot showers from the woodburner were wonderful after hot, dusty fieldwork. Each night we fell asleep to the sounds of lions and zebra, and to wake to the sun rising pink and perfect over the horizon and know that it's just you and nature for thousands and hundreds of hectares all around, before setting off for your three hour field bush walk - well, it was a far cry from life back in the UK! Sitting around the campfire with bottles of Tusker beer under a sky of shooting stars was a firm favourite too!
Fieldwork took place in the mornings; there was tremendous variety in the programme, from measuring rhino, elephant and giraffe damage to acacia trees, to counting wildlife seen on a transect walk, to recording thorns and feisty ants protecting acacia, to monitoring hartebeest from the back of a 4X4 at dawn... oh and let’s not forget counting the plentiful elephant dung! All activities were geared towards understanding habitat issues pertinent to the conservation of black rhinos. Armed with measuring tapes, binoculars, telescopic metre poles, GPS and range finders, we headed out every morning with the guards into the wild, and returned in the afternoon sun-kissed and exhausted to enter our valuable data, and then recount tales of our walks over dinner.
There’s nothing quite like picking your way through scrub or walking across savannahs in single file behind an armed guard, listening to the whistling acacia trees, skipping a breath when the bush suddenly rustles or grinning at the giraffe that watches you pass by from behind a tree. This project gives you a perspective on the wildlife that a touristy safari can’t even come close to, and it is having the time to observe the smaller animals, insects and plants - and really absorb the stunning views - that makes this experience so special. In fact, the tourists crammed in their safari jeeps like sardines were very jealous of us!
Working on plots in the wilderness got us up and a bit closer to the wildlife than we would have imagined a few times! And so it was that I was standing there measuring acacia trees, when I looked up and there was a rhino... just calmly grazing mere metres in front of us. We stood transfixed before edging downwind and catching our breath. It is extraordinary to see these creatures at such close quarters... prehistoric and magnificent.
Aside from the fieldwork there were various other activities on offer to dip into. Afternoon and night game drives brought us close to sleepy lions, foraging jackals, baby elephants and the curious aardvark. We were also lucky to meet the local poacher trackers and their gorgeous bloodhounds, who gave us a demonstration by hiding one of the willing volunteers a kilometre away while we all followed the dog eagerly, and were impressed with how easily it picked up the scent and found the ‘suspect’! Some evenings we all listened intently to talks on the reserve, the security measures there and the rhinos. And one afternoon we visited the nearby chimpanzee sanctuary where orphaned and rehabilitated chimps are rescued, and spent hours studying the remarkably human creatures as they picked their noses and shaded their eyes from the sun!
The Ol Pejeta research team were also based on-site, and were very generous in allowing us to accompany them on several of their animal tracking trips. On the first, we witnessed hyena baiting to determine the number of hyenas in a den – bait and hyena calls were set up, and what a sight to behold when 15 hyenas came loping over the horizon towards us at pace and ‘yipping’. Later we were lucky enough to go lion calling, with the truck blasting out the sound of lions fighting and a buffalo calf in distress whilst we scanned the horizon nervously with binoculars... in the end we attracted a lot of curious jackals, but no lions!
On the project community day we visited the cattle ranchers who manage the cattle-wildlife interaction at Ol Pejeta, had our heartstrings tugged at the poverty-stricken local primary school and visited a cultural village where we were greeted by dancing tribes with a veritable riot of beadwork criss-crossing their necks and chests. A terrific day out.
I think it’s fair to say that on this expedition you will see, hear or feel something everyday that will make you laugh, smile or cry. A few memories:
- Having 510 children grab our hands and say ‘jambo!’ (hello) at the school
- Riding on the back of the bumpy truck at dawn with the wind whipping our hair, Mt Kenya bathed in sunrise glory and hartebeest running alongside us
- Startling herds of zebra on foot, that stormed off in a cloud of dust
- The piercing stares of the buffalo we met on foot, and the sound of your heart beating!
- Sitting in the camp talking to the poacher trackers about recent poacher attempts
- Watching huge storm clouds roll across the savannah dropping their rain
- Inspecting animal carcasses in the reserve for cause of death
- Watching the sunbirds in the camp hover around us
- Putting down your camera to drink in the expansive views
The two weeks I spent at Ol Pejeta were truly memorable. You will discover an Africa that most travellers only dream of, meet people involved at the forefront of rhino conservation that you would never otherwise encounter, as well as having one of the most authentic and worthy volunteer experiences around. What are you waiting for!
Find out more about the Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos expedition.