All images © Saving the Wild | Simon Lucas

Social distance safari at Ol Pejeta is freedom in a locked down world

All images © Saving the Wild | Simon Lucas

I’m currently on location at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where they have just been nominated for three World Travel Awards: Africa’s Leading Conservation Company, Africa’s Leading Private Game Reserve and Africa’s Responsible Tourism Award. But the coronavirus pandemic brought tourism to its knees, so what does the future look like? 

Well, looking around me right now the words that come to mind are safe haven and getaway, at least for Kenya where the number of confirmed covid cases are a fraction of a percent – and out here in the safari bubble we are free from the virus. But the challenge is getting here, right? 

When I started writing this story the third paragraph began with “The world press is celebrating New Zealand being covid free for 100 days…” and then my phone beeped and a friend of mine in New Zealand watching an emergency press briefing messaged me to say “New coronavirus cases and Auckland is immediately going back into lockdown 3!!!”

My good friend Simon Lucas, an Auckland based film maker, got out in the nick of time. A little while back I asked him to give up his lucrative job so that he could join me in Kenya and document Saving the Wild’s projects, working for free. Like me, Simon agrees that beating extinction is priceless.

“Covid is going to be the new normal for the foreseeable future,” says Simon, “So I wasn’t prepared to put my life on hold waiting for it to go away. And I’m young enough that it’s low risk. If I get it, I’ll get over it.”

On August 3rd Simon travelled two days across the world and when he touched down in Nairobi he remarked that travel was a breeze. Everyone on the plane had had a covid test within 48 hours of flying, and temperature checks at the stopover and again on landing. And then temperature checks again when entering the town of Nanyuki, the nearest settlement to Ol Pejeta and another temperature check and washing hands station at the gate. 

Waking up to the calls of lions hunting
The last northern white rhino mother on earth with head caretaker Zach
Visiting Baraka the blind rhino

Once in the safari bubble it doesn’t take long to forget the world is battling a pandemic. There is no TV and news to drive you deeper into a depression, and you’re too busy having fun to look at your phone. This is the place you come to recharge your batteries, hit the reset button and feel free again. I’ve started the hashtag #SocialDistanceSafari, but in truth, it’s always been this way; lots of human bubbles observing rhinos, elephants and big cats at a safe distance. 

The first friend Simon and I made was with an Aussie volunteer who’s been “stuck” here since March. When we asked Nicole if she was eager to go home she smiled and said, “Not at all.” Some people have rented long lease properties, but for the most part tourists visit for a few days at a time. 

As for me, I don’t think I’ll ever leave the wild again unless I am certain I can get back. From the tracker dog handlers to the rhino monitors, I’ve spent a lot of time with the people who work here, and they all think like me…these animals are kin to us. Out here in the wild I am whole again. And I am free.

But most of important of all, every single person who visits Ol Pejeta is contributing towards the survival of vulnerable species during a time when they are most vulnerable. 

After spending five years working on the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa, where corruption is driving rhinos into extinction, and every week is death upon death, here at Ol Pejeta they haven’t lost any rhinos to poaching for two and a half years. It’s the most hopeful I have ever felt for the future of the rhinoceros. 

The largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, the rangers here check in their 135 black rhinos every four days. This means if they have not been able to identify a rhino within that window, the conservancy goes into high alert and more teams are put into the field to find the missing rhino. They monitor their rhinos for several reasons; in case of a poaching survivor, or an injury caused by two bulls fighting or otherwise, and really because they are so dedicated they want to know the condition of each rhino so that they can be treated before anything goes from bad to worse. 

Jamie Joseph and Sergeant Simon Irungu
Diego, the amazing malinois tracker dog with his dedicated handlers

A few days ago I spent the afternoon with Sergeant Simon Irungu, Team Commander for the Rapid Response Unit on Ol Pejeta. He has worked here for 13 years and last year he won the African Ranger Award. This is not just a job to Simon, it is his calling, and when he goes home to his son he can say he gave it everything so that when his son grows up to be a man he too will be able to share the wild with his family. 

If you would like to contribute towards the survival of the rhino, please consider making a donation to Ol Pejeta or volunteering or visiting, because tourism funds conservation. Ol Pejeta are going through extremely hard times with the drop in tourism and salary cuts across the board. More than anything in the world, rhinos need safe havens, and Ol Pejeta is the best rhino safe haven I have ever been to.

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