• Adam Bannister

Where Cows and Conservation Co-exist

Updated: May 4, 2019

On a short visit to Ol Pejeta, Adam Bannister was struck by the diversity Kenya has to offer

Originally posted on https://angama.com/leaving-out-the-dull-parts-blog

With a formal background in conservation and land management, I have always wanted to travel to Laikipia county. The reason:  to visit a shining example of forward-thinking conservation.

What a treat it was to be invited by Margot Raggett of Remembering Wildlife to accompany her on a visit to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya for a few days. The purpose of the trip was to see firsthand the difference that Remembering Wildlife is making across Africa. On this specific occasion, Margot was handing over a cheque for US$15,000 to the team at Ol Pejeta to use towards their efforts in protecting both rhinos and elephants. To date, her three books have raised approximately US$600,000 for conservation work, and we are just a few months away from the release of what is set to be the biggest book of them all: Remembering Lions.

Margot in talks with the CEO of Ol Pejeta, Richard Vigne, and the rhino anti-poaching team. They do incredible work securing one of Africa’s last remaining rhino strongholds.

Last year, the death of the last male northern white rhino on earth, named Sudan, brought the world to tears. Tragically, humans alone are responsible for this magnificent species staring down the barrel of extinction.

There are now only two northern white rhinos still alive today, and both are female. Safely housed in an enclosure at Ol Pejeta, these two individuals are precious and being able to spend time with them was a real privilege. This year, Ol Pejeta is hoping to experiment with an IVF programme to see if they can bring this species back from otherwise certain extinction.

To spend time on foot with these animals was extremely moving and an emotional experience. I was astounded by the size of them, and also their gentle nature and temperament. Of course, I would never try this with wild rhinos and the circumstances which have created this situation are exceptional. This individual spent most of its life in a zoo before being brought back to Kenya to live out its life at home.

The management of Ol Pejeta Conservancy is groundbreaking in its conservation work and approach. Daily, the team tackles the threats of an ever-growing human population, climate change and wildlife poaching. To spend time with the various conservation projects was wonderful and refreshing. We were fortunate enough to go out with the lion monitoring team. Using telemetry we managed to track and find a lioness and her sub-adult male offspring.

There are about 75 lions currently on Ol Pejeta and they need constant monitoring. Movement corridors allow for all animals, except rhino, to move in and out of the conservancy and so conflict with humans and communities outside of the area is a real issue that needs to be managed and mitigated.

Each day, we went out on game drives and managed to see some magical sightings. What a contrast to the open grasslands of the Maasai Mara. Kenya really has a lot to offer and there is such variety over a relatively short distance.

We stayed at the Ol Pejeta Safari Cottages, using this as a base from which to explore the conservancy and to meet all the stakeholders and players involved in its multitude of projects.

Probably the most unusual and striking aspect of Ol Pejeta is that it also houses over 7,000 head of cattle. For most naturalists and purists, this is a confusing situation. I too, was unclear about how it worked and so set up a meeting with the head of the land and livestock, Richard Van Aardt. He brought along his dogs and we met on one of the many clearings. He discussed at length the relationship between the land, local herdsmen and livestock.

Ecologically, the cattle are used to open up thick areas, crafting the landscape into a more suitable environment for the many picky indigenous game species. The cattle also allow them to supplement tourism income with beef; to employ well over a hundred herders from the neighbouring villages, and to avoid having to light controlled fires. Richard said that only 1% of cows are lost each year to predation by lions and hyenas and that the relationship with the locals, and ultimately the success of areas such as Ol Pejeta, lies in management being accepting of locals’ desire for cattle.

Ol Pejeta has a handful of Grevy’s Zebra. This species has undergone one of the most substantial reductions of range of any African mammal. They are doing everything in their power to increase the population and a small herd of 13 is being housed in a predator-proof enclosure, giving them the chance to breed without threat.

One of the things I loved most about Ol Pejeta is that it houses lots of species I’m not used to seeing in the Mara. A point in case here – an oryx.

Or the magnificent and oh-so beautiful reticulated giraffe. I can see how combining a visit to central Kenya, together with the Maasai Mara, would give visitors a well-rounded view of what Kenya has to offer.

We had excellent luck when it came to cheetah sightings and I spent many happy hours in the company of this female and her cub.

In addition to the northern white rhinos, Ol Pejeta is also home to southern white rhino which tend to stick to the open clearings, allowing for fantastic photographic opportunities.

When one leaves the open plains and heads into the thickets, you have a great chance of seeing a different species: the black rhino. Ol Pejeta has the highest number of black rhino in East Africa and the rangers do a superb job in protecting this endangered species.

I also had some wonderful elephant encounters over the four-day visit.

And the most magnificent sunsets. Gin and tonics, wine and beer on the clearings. Mount Kenya perched to the east and the sun sinking to the west. A family of buffalo makes their way to a watering hole for the last drink of the day.

Another magnificent day at Ol Pejeta comes to an end. This conservancy should be very proud of what it has achieved by tackling real issues and finding effective solutions. It is a true role model for much of conservation in Africa and I highly recommend that anyone interested in the management of wildlife should spend time reading up about this area; and if you ever have the chance to visit then do it. Yes, Ol Pejeta has to manage its wildlife more intently then I am used to, and yes it is completely different to my home in the Maasai Mara, but equally it is a special place deserving of the highest praise.

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