• February 27, 2014

Ami Vitale: The Last of the Northern White Rhinos

Ami Vitale

Five years ago, I heard about a plan to airlift four of the last Northern White Rhinos from a zoo in the Czech Republic back to Africa. It sounded like a storyline for a Disney film but in reality, it was a desperate, last ditch effort to save an entire species. There are only seven of these rhinos left in existence. When I saw these huge, hulking gentle creatures surrounded by smokestacks and factories in the zoo outside of Prague, it seemed so unfair that we have reduced an entire species to this.

Picture of: A Northern White Rhino
In December 2009, the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya airlifted the last four breeding age Northern White Rhinos from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. As of 2014, there are only seven of these rhinos living in the world.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya worked hard to make the move possible and the rhinos were flown on a cold, snowy night in December, 2009. They landed and were brought to roam “free” on the savannas of Kenya at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The hope was then, and now, to breed them. The air, water, and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa. Failing successful breeding, they will be cross-bred with Southern White Rhinos to preserve the genes.

Picture of: Baby rhinos
Yusuf, a keeper, keeps tracks of three baby black rhinos at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Nicky, the largest of the three, is the baby of a rhino who is partially blind so she is being hand-raised.

Recently, I went back to visit the four rhinos who had been airlifted to Kenya: Sudan, Suni, Najin and Fatu. It warmed my heart to see them nuzzling on the open plains, but I was reminded of a tragic truth by the team of armed guards who are there to protect them from poachers. Poaching is not slowing down, and it’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the current trajectory of killing continues, rhinos, along with elephants and a host of lesser known plains animals, will be functionally extinct in our lifetime. Organized by sophisticated heavily armed criminal networks and fueled by heavy demand from newly minted millionaires in emerging markets, poaching is devastating the amazing mega-fauna of the African plains.

Picture of: An anti-poaching security team in Kenya
Security teams get off a helicopter at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. A renewed surge in poaching in Africa is threatening the survival of critically endangered species and Lewa has had to dramatically increase security. These mobile, anti-poaching patrols look and act like an infantry unit.

Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the conflict between heavily armed poachers and increasingly militarized wildlife rangers, but very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the frontlines of the poaching wars and the incredible work that is being done to strengthen them. These communities may hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals.

Picture of:  Randisa Kisio who is employed by the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya.
Randisa Kisio is employed by the Northern Rangelands Trust. “We are thankful for the tourists who visit us here, for it is they who pay the scouts who protect wild animals. If not for them and the people who opened the lodge, it would still be as it was in the past.”
Picture of: A former poacher in Kenya
Julius Lokinyi is a former poacher who now works to protect elephants in Northern Kenya. Most poachers are desperately poor and are attracted to the enormous amount of money that can be obtained for horns and ivory on the black market. Working to protect animals gives them an alternative livelihood.

The Nature Conservancy has been helping the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) form “community wildlife conservancies.” These conservancies benefit the indigenous communities, and help locals understand that high-end tourists are far more valuable to them over the long term than the short-term gain of poaching. The hope is that if their welfare, education and livelihoods are being jeopardized when a rhino or elephant is killed, local communities won’t let it happen.

We can often forget that the best protectors of these landscapes are the local communities themselves. Their efforts to preserve community cohesion is ultimately the best immunization against forces that threaten both their wildlife and way of life.

Picture of: Women in Northern Kenya
Women collect water at West Gate Conservancy in Northern Kenya. “Before we had this well, we would walk for many hours every day just to get water. Sometimes it was not safe but…this has made our lives more secure.” This place was once the site of massive tribal infighting. Now communities are using tourism to motivate and persuade local people that there is a future in community-led conservation.

 Ami Vitale is working to produce a documentary about the indigenous communities of Northern Kenya on the front lines of the poaching wars. She also hopes to deliver a series of visual storytelling trainings to these communities of the Northern Rangelands Trust so they can learn to tell their own stories. Visit her project funding site here.

Related story: Editor in Chief Chris Johns’ Proof post about the ban on African elephant ivory in the U.S.

Related story: The 2012 National Geographic magazine feature on Rhino Wars

There are 41 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Antonio de Lucia
    November 28, 2015

    I would like to make a donation to an organization that is working on saving rhinos. Please advise. Thank you.

  2. martin njure kinyua
    December 5, 2014

    iam mt kenya tour guide & a friend of e african conservancies where there is great work of protecting splendid endanged wildlife am appealing 2 good friend in assisting me to teach young school children across mt kenya region on the importance of (conserving nature anti poaching campaign innitiative)

  3. marianne robey
    November 4, 2014

    Tragic end for a beautiful and harmless inhabitant of our earth. Wonderful the work that some humans are doing to try and protect them.

  4. et
    July 31, 2014


  5. marianne robey
    May 3, 2014

    We are the guardians of this earth, not it’s owners… that is the misunderstanding that causes us to take what is not ours. Ebay is still selling ivory, described usually as ‘bone’ but the dealers know, and so does Ebay, that it is in fact ivory and a big trade goes on there. I have raised the matter with them and they did nothing. Put pressure and refuse to use them if they don’t become proactive. Of course, the bigger problem is the far east. The only way forward is for more governments to give rights to animals who are threatened. What keeps me going is the knowledge that some people do care. Thankyou

  6. rocky chaudhry
    March 20, 2014

    Great job .Lets save all of animals .

  7. Saija Dasari
    March 16, 2014

    Hi my dear friend! you are my inspiration in every step! I love you so much and All the best for more achievements

  8. Natasza Rollo
    March 2, 2014

    “Being poor doesn’t give anyone the right to do whatever they want to do.”

    Agreed. Since when did poverty become a free pass for criminal, negligent, immoral activity? There are far more destitute individuals than these who manage to retain their dignity and humanity. Scum is the appropriate word for someone who is willing to sell out his community, nation, and planet for something as cheap as money.

  9. littledarling
    March 2, 2014

    In my country, It’s a lot of poachers. They’re absolutely poverty and they can aware of what they did and it’s consequence. But they didn’t and won’t stop because it’s one and only their livelihood.

  10. Tammy Young
    March 2, 2014

    Wild Life in Africa is the main reason to go there, to kill off species for pelts, is Moronic, the only reason to tour Africa, for the Wild Life! Keep All Species Alive, to help African Economy!

  11. David Fast
    March 1, 2014

    This is a terrible thing. These poachers don’t consider the loss of a particular species, any big deal. What will they go after next, when this species dies out? This kind of thing has to stop.

  12. Donna Shore
    March 1, 2014

    These are noble natives who value their gift!

  13. shanthumohammed
    March 1, 2014

    hai .every one how are you all are…? i am shanthumohammed. coming from India… then i saw the page in facebook so poor rhino and elephant’s in the world population ……punctually white rhino’s only 5 … so poor so people’s help to animals … and nature…. please protect the nature .. 🙂

  14. Susan Hutchings
    March 1, 2014

    I was lucky to see them in the wild .if we can not save them what can we save Keep up the good work

  15. kERRY
    March 1, 2014


  16. Dornadula, C
    March 1, 2014

    I had the chance of seeing both Asian Rhinos in Kziranga National Park, India and African white Rhinos in Nakuru National Park, Kenya last year. They are indeed magnificent animals and should be protected. I have taken lovely pictures of these magnificent animals. The local communities are committed to save and protect the wild life in Kenya and these communities should be encouraged and supported for doing job which even the wild life wardens can not do. Feeling for animals should come from within the humans. Punishment for poaching should be severe.

  17. Julie McDonald
    March 1, 2014

    Praise to u all this earth needs millions more people like u!! May the good Lord watch over and bring you many blessings. They will come!!! Thank-you!!!

  18. Jana Mysliveckova
    March 1, 2014

    In The article is a mistake. Dvur Kralove Zoo is in the Czech Republic, but it is not in Prague. Zoo Praha is completely different zoo. Moving rhinos in Ol Pejeta is a project Dvur Kralove.

  19. Prof.(Dr.) Shrikant Rakhe
    March 1, 2014

    It is indeed a great initiative, this good work should continue with the help of local communities and also with the conscious help of people from all over the world. We all should do everything possible to save these magnificent giants. Great Work Ami…

  20. Ronnie Stevens
    March 1, 2014

    Shannon is so correct, also let other community based organisations be visited, to their benefit and that of the animals.

  21. Shannon O’Connor
    February 28, 2014


  22. Katrina
    February 28, 2014

    Please make a documentary on the Rhinos servival and endorse those protecting them in the wild placing their own lives at risk!!! Thanks for following the story May Rhinos go forth and renew their numbers on Earth!!

  23. Gail Stenersen
    February 28, 2014

    Please, let us not allow another wonderful species vanish from this planet…It is not only shameful and cruel but someday humankind will suffer because of these losses brought on by our own selfish and complacent attitudes.

  24. Karen Welch
    February 28, 2014

    It is so heartbreaking to watch as man destroys natural habitat and the amazing creatures that inhabits those habitats. Man is the most destructive animal on this planet…..and knows that he is and continues to be so for money. What a horrible epitaph.

  25. Madeleine
    February 28, 2014

    Thank you everyone who helped save these wonderful creatures if they went extinct i would scream my head off

  26. Nia
    February 28, 2014

    Keep up the good work. The people who help these rhinos are great helpers of nature, God Bless them. If the rhinos die out, Africa won’t be the same. I’ll do all I can to help the rhinos.

  27. Nia
    February 28, 2014

    Poor animals! God bless the people who help the rhinos, they are great people.

  28. Rae
    February 28, 2014

    God bless these men and women who are protecting not only the Rhinos but all the animals. They are to be commended. It is a dirty shame that some low lifes put money before a life whether it be people or animals.

  29. Tom Morrison
    February 28, 2014

    I spent a week at Lewa two years ago. An amazing story, starting with Tony Dyer, the last of the great white hunters of Africa, who turned staunch conservationist after being appalled by the wanton killing of dwindling populations of animals. I recommend your including Lewa on any visit to Kenya; and go to their website and contribute. This effort is well worth the support of everyone who can afford to do it. There is so much more to this story than can be told in a brief article.

  30. Liane Brewer
    February 28, 2014

    we must do everything possible to
    save these magnificant creature.
    without them Africa would never be the same.

  31. Shannon
    February 28, 2014

    I just got back from a wildlife conservation program around Kilimanjaro in Kenya and Tanzania. While community conservation is the only way wildlife conservation is plausible and can benefit the community, there are still so many obstacles. Tour guides take tourists straight to the big, government owned parks instead of community-based conservation sites because they can make more money. Also, community-based conservation efforts like Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary fail because of corruption.

    I think it’s key that tourists for ecotourism ask to go to community-based conservation sites instead of/in addition to Serengeti, Ngorogoro, Amboseli, etc. The demand has to be there or the local communities will never benefit. Once the community-based conservation sites are actually profitable and profits are dispersed equitably, other communities will follow.

  32. Babak
    February 28, 2014

    Great work 🙂

  33. Terry Armstrong
    February 28, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this important story and your beautiful photographs.

  34. Marcelo moran
    February 28, 2014

    Being poor doesn’t give anyone the right to do whatever they want to do.

  35. dr shakeel
    February 28, 2014

    Great story

  36. Michael Ernst
    February 28, 2014

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to devalue what the poachers kill for? Dye the horns with permanent dyes, the same with the pelts! Doesn’t have to be ugly on the animal just so that it ruins the valuation. You would think a painball gun would do the trick!

  37. Judy
    February 28, 2014

    What can we do????

  38. Ric Aschle
    February 28, 2014

    Very compelling story. It is a terrible shame that the white rhino is near extinction because of the wanton slaughter and greed of mankind.

  39. Nikhil
    February 28, 2014

    its shame that one can kill the rhios rather any animal…. its shame on humanity… plzzz stop it

  40. Rudolph.A.Furtado
    February 28, 2014

    I was born in Mombassa and lived in that port city from 1960 to 1968 as a child. Remember visiting the Nairobi National park in 1967 and seeing a pride of Cheetahs.If i visit the same Nairobi national park in 2014 i wonder what animal species would still be existing in this small national reserve close to the city.The mass slaughter of “BIG GAME” in the last few decades has created havoc in Wild life conservation leading to drastic extinction process of many once common species like the Rhino’s,lions and elephants.Hope the same is reversed and a healthy species population is maintained in National parks of Kenya and other African nations that is blessed with immense natural wild-life.

  41. Minh Nguyen
    February 27, 2014

    Great story! Keep up fhe good work!!!

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