Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, has just won one of the Judges Awards at the World Travel Market Responsible Tourism Awards 2019. We caught up with the CEO, Richard Vigne, to find out more about this conservation success story.
Can you tell us a little about Ol Pejeta?
Ol Pejeta Conservancy covers 400km2 of land in Laikipia County, Northern Kenya. We’re home to over 130 black rhinos. The Conservancy has managed to grow the black rhino population by 100% in 10 years, which is a huge contribution to global wildlife conservation. Ol Pejeta wants to show that conservation can pay its own way, and contribute environmentally, socially and economically for the benefit of all, so we integrate wildlife conservation with ecotourism and cattle ranching. It is essential that land is used productively in conservation.
We are a not-for-profit wildlife sanctuary, which means any profits made are reinvested back into the conservancy and community development programmes. We’ve created this model for conservation that not only preserves iconic species but also benefits local people. We aim to become an engine for sustainable development in this part of Northern Kenya. It is a model I believe can be replicated worldwide.
Why is conservation so important to you? And why rhinos?
People often see conservation as saving cuddly animals. In fact, it is about making sure that the planet continues to remain habitable for humans and animals alike. And that is what is so fascinating about conservation – it is such a rich, complex, multi-faceted discipline that is endlessly interesting and never boring.
The continued existence of rhinos as an umbrella species – with all of the added complexity that entails – is a simple signal that conservation space is being created and sustained, something that is good for many other species, as well as the ecological processes that we humans depend upon such as flowing rivers and clean air. That’s one of the reasons rhinos are important, notwithstanding the fact they are endlessly fascinating complex creatures that have evolved over many millions of years and therefore deserve our protection.
What’s been your biggest challenge in running Ol Pejeta?
There are a few! First, challenging mindsets in the ways that conservation has traditionally been done. As human populations increase, conservation practitioners must see that ‘fortress conservation’ ( keeping people out of protected areas) doesn’t work at the scale necessary to secure the ecological processes that we are dependent upon.
Second, finding secured habitat that rhinos can move about freely in. Rhinos are a risk. They are costly and can be dangerous, so securing land for them can be tricky. Ol Pejeta has 90,000 acres and we need to expand over the next few years as our rhino population is reaching its ecological carrying capacity.
Third, although the black rhino population has recovered since the late 1980s, there is still a poaching threat. We’re holding a line against poaching. We’re not quite turning the tide yet. The demand for rhino horn in places like Vietnam is still high. Rhino protection from poaching itself is also continuous, costly and dangerous.
Humans do not have the right to let extinction happen on our watch. We need to change how we consume and interact with our planet. The rate of extinction is the fastest it’s ever been due to human activity. The time to draw a line in the sand has come.
What’s been the best decision you’ve made? And biggest regret?
Believing that Ol Pejeta could do something great from a conservation perspective when I took it over as a failing cattle ranch in 1996. I try not to have too many regrets…
Do you work with other conservancies in Laikipia? What about overseas?
Increasingly Ol Pejeta is seen as one of the leading conservation organizations in Kenya and Laikipia. People now look to us to provide the muscle and impetus for collaboration across the Laikipia landscape, something we are glad to try and do. We are also gaining international recognition for our work and have won a number of awards for the way we approach our tourism business.
Are you planning any new tourism ventures/community initiatives?
We’ve evaluated and hugely improved our conservation experiences, making them more immersive for visitors, including itineraries that take in the daily operations of the largest rhino sanctuary in the region, the only chimpanzee sanctuary in Kenya, a dynamic carnivore monitoring system and ranching activities. Two new camps are set to open in 2020 as well. We also launched a new reservations process, a robust guiding and hosting service and improved feedback collection mechanisms, and we have invested in staff training and vehicle upgrades.
Regarding conservation, we have launched an on-site conservation technology lab. This has opened up opportunities for innovators to apply technology in conservation efforts such as the use of renewable energy and wildlife monitoring. We have also continued the development of Mutara Conservancy, which is now fully fenced with game corridors linking to the wider Laikipia ecosystem. We hope to be ready to accept a founder population of black rhino in Mutara in 2020.