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Where animals have tales to tell

REAL ESTATE
By | November 11th 2010

Though touted as the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, Ole Pejeta is home to other animals whose lives bear tales, writes Ferdinand Mwongela.

First it was the Amboseli elephant matriarch, Echo, whose death left conservationists in tears, then the oryx-adopting lioness, Kamunyak, in Samburu. Kenyan animals have had their moments of fame, too.

Laikipia and more specifically the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, better known for its rhino population had Morani, a black rhino who for years provided researchers with invaluable insight into the behaviour of rhinos. Unfortunately, Morani passed on in 2008 and on the day we visited Ol Pejeta another rhino, Baraka, living in the world of darkness having lost his sight, had taken Morani’s place. He allows people to get up close just like his predecessor Morani.

Set on the plains of Laikipia, the heat in the day can only be described as sweltering, humming into the ears with the monotony of the brown grass broken by stunted acacia trees and the occasional dips of the landscape.

When we arrived at Ol Pejeta, the sun was high in the sky, the road ahead of us broken by mirages. After checking in to Sweetwaters Tented Camp and a quick lunch, we left for a game drive.

Many animals are driven under shades in the heat of the sun, but on this day, one of the areas we paid attention to was the rhino sanctuary in the conservancy. Ol Pejeta is touted as the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa and this is with reason as the 90,000 acre conservancy holds 86 black rhinos.

But this is not all. In 2007, the Conservancy was the focus of the largest rhino translocation in the region that saw 27 black rhinos moved into Ol Pejeta. The conservancy continues to be a key area of attraction for the rhino population.

The newest black rhino in the conservancy at the time of our visit was Lola, a female black rhino brought into the sanctuary from the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy whose life was threatened by the dominant male black rhino after she was released into the wild.

Pay homage

Baraka, a blind rhino at Ol Pejeta conservancy, is friendly to humans and is the centre of curiosity for researchers. [Photos: Evans Habil /Standard]

In December 2009, four northern white rhinos became the latest entrants into the conservancy’s rhino population. The northern white rhino is the biggest of the rhinos, a massive bulk of flesh and rippling muscle. The four, half of the world’s entire population of the northern white rhinos, were moved here from the Czech Republic in an attempt to save the species from extinction. The conservancy also has 11 southern white rhinos.

As we drove into the rhino sanctuary, we met several other tour vehicles parked there, a testament to the attraction that the rhino population has become. Off we headed in the company of a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger to the enclosure of Baraka. We found him resting quietly in the shade of a raised platform built on the edge of his enclosure for closer interaction with visitors.

Safely on the platform, tourists, both local and foreign, pay homage to the black rhino that does not seem to mind their presence, indulging them the way you would a curious kid. He soon got up and ambled around as if carefully weighing the newcomers and, for a moment, it was difficult to know that Baraka is indeed blind.

Despite the occasional bursts of bravado, few were willing to get close enough to the edge of the enclosure for a photo moment with Baraka.

Research work

Reaching forward, it is easy to touch his rough hide marked in places by fresh wounds that the guide informs us are not strange to the rhinos. After his predecessor Morani, Baraka is now the centre of curiosity from both researchers interested in learning more about the population and curious visitors interested in getting close to a rhino.

Soon, the novelty of being close to Baraka wore off for me and my focus shifted to the enclosure holding another four northern white rhinos a bit of distance from where we were. Our guide, however, said they were not yet allowed to come into contact with visitors and we had to be content to just watch the massive beasts pacing about in their enclosure like steroid pumped wrestlers daring anyone to get into the ring and take them on.

Even from a distance, you could easily tell the northern white rhinos would make Baraka look like a stunted version of the rhino population. By then, it was almost dusk and we left hurriedly for our hotel for a quiet night in.

 

New lease of life

Earlier, we had visited the chimpanzee sanctuary in the conservancy where 42 chimpanzees have found a new lease of life. The chimpanzees are not indigenous to Kenya and most of the residents here have come from Burundi and Congo, most of them orphaned and abused before they were rescued. Opened in 2003 with three chimpanzee orphans from Burundi, the number has since swelled to the current 42.

When we got there, members of one family were seated quietly under a tree with the senior members of the family in a watchful stance. The youngsters ran around rubble rousing, not unlike unruly children.

Away from the rest of the family sat Max, head bent, gazing at the growing number of visitors without moving. He would wave or respond when taunted but quickly go back to his almost sullen pose.

The keepers, however, informed us that despite his pose, Max was the troublemaker of the group. Also standing close to the fence that separated the chimpanzees from the visitors was Poco who was prone to bouts of tantrums standing on his two feet pounding his chest and eyeing us balefully.

We learnt that almost all the animals here have some form of history. Poco, for instance, spent the first nine years of his life in a small cage where he was forced to stand on all twos, hence his penchant for standing upright when showing off to visitors.

The dominant male of one of the families, Ndaronse, was rescued from Bujumbura, Burundi where he was kept in a wooden box with a chain around his neck. Ndaronse’s name means ‘I have found peace’, and indeed he has.

The stories of most the chimpanzees here are enough to make a grown man weep. But the consolation is that now they have found a safe haven where they have regained their confidence.

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