By Marisa Notier
The Notier Notes
Our Sunday Scoop
Welcome to our Sunday Scoop - a five minute escape where I will take you to an exotic land far away, a place where the last Northern White Rhinos roam.
When we first moved to Nanyuki, Kenya a couple of months ago, we had no idea that only 20 minutes away from our house was a nature reserve with the last two Northern White Rhinos. But once we learned about Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and discovered that the park had half-off tickets due to the pandemic, we decided to rent a car for a day and head down the road to have one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.
As an extra treat for ourselves, we booked a horseback-riding excursion into the rhino enclosures. Yes, that's right - we went inside with the rhinos. This was not your typical zoo field trip, this was a safari on steroids.
One of the best things about being on a horse as opposed to in a vehicle is that the wildlife treats you like you're a giraffe or antelope, as opposed to a noisy machine they want to run from. It was surreal being surrounded by impalas, warthogs, water buffalo, and zebras all congregating around like we were just members of the herd. They were completely unafraid of us, and without doors or windows, there was a certain freedom and vulnerability that made the experience that much more tactile, visceral, and memorable.
If you one day find yourself going on a safari in Africa, and you like horseback-riding, I would highly recommend combining the two experiences, as it's a whole new way of seeing the natural world around you.
As we rode into the heavily guarded enclosure with the last two Northern White Rhinos, I noticed them laying in the grass taking a morning snooze. They're both females, mother and daughter, and they both have reproductive problems. This may sound as dire as it gets, but fortunately, conservationists have kept some sperm from the last of the males, and by using the eggs from these females, they will artificially inseminate a surrogate mother of another rhino species. So there is still hope that one day, a baby Northern White Rhino will be born.
If you want to learn more about these two "girls" and what their future holds, there's a great article on them from the NYT that was published just a few days ago.
The park has plenty of other rhinos as well, and on our way back to the stables, we almost got charged by two young males who kept snorting at us and taking defensive poses. I was pretty sure I was going to pee my pants. I thought that if my horse bolts, I might fall off, and then I'd certainly get trampled to the death... Even our guide started snorting back to the rhinos, later telling us that he gets charged all the time. Those hefty liability forms we signed at the beginning suddenly made a lot of sense.
I also now understood why we had been given huge thoroughbreds to ride, because you need to have a large, fast horse in case you get charged. Slow and steady Mr. Ed just won't do in these circumstances.
As the two hot-headed males got closer, my eyes fixated on their most terrifying part - their long piercing horns. Though some conservation groups choose to cut off the rhinos' horns to prevent pouching, Ol Pejeta doesn't for several reasons. Since the horns keep growing (just like hair and nails), the process of constantly tranquilizing the animals and sawing off their horns can affect their health, and can be dangerous for the workers involved. It can also leave the rhinos defenseless against attacks from other animals, including fellow rhinos.
I have to say, the horns do make them look gorgeous and majestic, but as those two young males threatened to charge us, gorgeous and majestic were not the words running through my head.
So, yes, we were almost caught in the cross-fire by these ENORMOUS animals that look like the animal version of a medieval battering ram. But luckily, they lost interest in us, and we made it out of the rhino area alive.
Back at the stables, we got an up-close-and-personal look at an old blind rhino named Baraka who loves eat carrots. Baraka is now completely reliant on human support for survival, so he's become the park's "ambassador" for rhino conservation, and was truly a gentle giant. I don't know if you've ever touched a rhino, but if you haven't, I will tell you that their skin feels surprisingly soft and warm.
Next, we had lunch back in our car beside a herd of grazing elephants. With the car parked and turned off, the elephants came right up to us, noisily chewing on grass, and ripping it up with their trunks. The crunching sounds of the elephants grazing was very meditative, but their babies seemed to want nothing to do with this monotonous munching, and instead kept playing with each other or flopping around in the mud. How is it possible that a baby that weighs more than me can still be so cute?
Finally, to top off the day, we got a glimpse of a few chimpanzees in their sanctuary, but it was at a 30 foot distance due to new Covid restrictions (after all, chimps are so closely related to humans, they can get Covid just like us). They are much bigger than I had expected, almost gorilla sized. I kept recalling pictures I'd seen of Jane Goodall with a chimp hanging around her neck, but that must have been a baby, because these guys would've easily wrestled her to the ground without meaning to. And those huge teeth - they were as intimidating as they were fascinating.
I was surprised to learn that this park is not part of the Kenyan National Park Service, but is actually a private reserve owned by some Texas oil tycoon. Yeah, that gave me a bit of a head-scratching moment, but I suppose if you have to put your money somewhere, investing in the preservation of the world's most endangered species is a great way to spend it. So I'm glad we could help contribute to this incredible cause, even in a small way.
Marisa, Tim, and Baraka
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