It’s no secret that rhino populations are declining and have been for a very long time. Of the five rhino species left, there are two individuals I would like to introduce you to: Najin and Fatu; they have made headlines numerous times, but none I wish I would ever have to read.
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White rhinos consist of two distinct subspecies, the southern white rhino, and the northern white rhino. The southern white rhino population has climbed from an estimated 100 individuals in the 1900s to almost 20 000 in 2020. Sadly, that is not the case for the latter. Najin and Fatu are the last two remaining northern white rhinos on earth, and they are both females. I am sure you can understand why I remarked about the headlines being unappealing. Thankfully, there is a group of scientists breaking ground in an attempt to save the species.
Najin and Fatu had never known a life outside captivity. The rhinos were born at Dv*r Králové Safari Park in the Czech Republic. This was all part of a breeding plan, an attempt to preserve the species back in the 1970s. Najin was born in 1989 and sired by Sudan but he, unfortunately, died in 2018. Sudan was also Fatu’s grandfather and Najin gave birth to her in 2000. In 2009 the decision was made to translocate four northern white rhinos to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya hoping that a more natural environment might encourage the rhinos to breed. This is where I had the opportunity to meet Najin and Fatu personally and it was honestly one of the most intimidating things I have done- I’ll explain in a moment.
Lisa and I headed down the road to the Morani Information Centre, where Zacharia Mutai greeted us. While he is the head keeper for Najin and Fatu, he has been involved with rhinos for over a decade. I have never met a man more passionate about wildlife. Zacharia then gave us the rundown of the current projects and an update on the plans for Najin and Fatu. In my opinion, it’s complicated as I’m not a biologist; I used a dictionary and the text-to-speech tool to help pronounce some of the words. I will try to explain it as simply as possible!
Unfortunately, Najin and Fatu both have issues with their reproductive systems and are unable to carry a calf to full term. In the past, both females have had oocytes (immature egg cells) collected; however, Najin has been retired from this process. Collecting oocytes in humans is less complicated, immature eggs are retrieved from the ovaries and are then fertilized in a lab using various procedures. When dealing with wildlife, there are many complications and one contributing factor is that rhinos and other large mammals do not respond well to anesthesia. Collecting the immature egg cells is one thing; however, the eggs must be of good quality to increase the chance that a fertilized egg will become an embryo. Najin has benign tumors on her cervix and uterus and Fatu does not have any lining on her uterus, but there is still some hope for the northern white rhinos.
The idea is to use southern white rhino females as surrogates. Previously this has been unsuccessful in captive rhinos; however, scientists are hopeful it will work with wild southern white rhinos. Only a few females have been chosen and will need careful monitoring to implant embryos shortly after mating. Not all animals have a menstrual cycle, and ovulation only occurs after copulation. The team of scientists is hoping it is true for rhinos as there has been much debate about whether or not rhinos have a menstrual cycle.
Upon our recent visit, we took a moment to digest all the information given to us, Zacharia then took us through the gates, which reminded me of Jurassic Park, and into the area where the last two northern white rhinos were grazing. The rhinos live out in a large paddock, where they can feed, drink water and even have a mud wallow. At this point, Lisa – our guest – and I were in the vehicle when Najin and Fatu came over to say hello. Well, that is not entirely true, Zacharia explained that the rhinos enjoyed carrots as treats and then promptly fed them a couple. He then handed us a few carrots, I was quite nervous. Though these rhinos are tame and have known humans their whole lives, they are still enormous with horns that reminded me of blunt swords which they seemed to have no control over. Najin and Fatu were swinging their heads side to side searching for the carrots, I held my hand out, and their colossal lips engulfed my hand! I wiped away all the saliva and thankfully counted five fingers. Needless to say, that was the end of my carrot-feeding rhino experience. Zacharia then coaxed us out of the vehicle to have another look at the rhinos, absolutely terrified by this suggestion, we trusted him and hopped out. The rhinos then moved off and started grazing where Lisa and I could observe them from a distance and asked Zacharai no short of 100 questions!
I have to highlight once again the tremendous work being conducted by the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and recommend adding it to your trip if you are ever in Kenya. I think I speak for everyone when I say; I am crossing my fingers and toes that the next stage of saving the northern white rhinos goes well.
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If you’d like to visit Ol Pejeta and experience first hand their amazing conservation work during your next safarihave a look at our Classic Kenya Safari itinerary for more