Sirimon Thomas recounts a 5 day conservation education field trip with RVA to Ol Pejeta Conservancy with the Swedish School from Nairobi...
Day 1: The Swedish School in Nairobi arrived in the early afternoon of Monday 18th April. After everyone was settled and introduced, we headed over to Irura Primary school, very close to the camp which RVA has been supporting for many years. There we were met by two teachers and some of class 6, who had kindly returned from mid-term break to meet the Swedish students. We spent the afternoon painting educational murals on the classroom walls, under the instruction of the Irura teachers, who were very pleased to see their classrooms brightened up immeasurably. There was also a wild game of football organized with all the Irura kids and some of the Swedes; wild in that rules seemed to be optional. Once we ran out of time, the students headed back to the RVA Ol Pejeta camp for dinner and evening around the fire.
Day 2: Up early (6.45 am) to ensure we got into Ol Pejeta Conservancy on time. Ol Pejeta is one of the key wildlife conservancies globally owing to it housing the last two remaining Northern White Rhinos, as well as a host of other endangered species. The program that RVA had arranged for the Swedish school involved a huge variety of activities run in conjunction with the Ol Pejeta Education department. This started with an introductory talk from Eva Kimani, one of the Education Officers, on the challenges facing conservation, the complexities of implementing conservation work and the role that Ol Pejeta and all individuals have to play. This provided a great foundation for the activities that the students would experience over the coming days.
After the talk, we made our way to the back of the Chimpanzee enclosure for an exclusive introduction to one of Africa’s few Chimpanzee sanctuaries. The students were taught about the social and behavioral biology of Chimps as well as the reasons for the sanctuary’s existence. This focused look at a single endangered species was then continued by a visit to the Endangered Species Boma. This is where the last two Northern White Rhinos, Fatu and Najin (both females). The students got taken into the enclosure and got close enough to stroke these amazing creatures while James, their keeper, explained the differences between them and other rhino species and the efforts being used to try and revive the species.
The students then got down to helping out with running the rhino enclosure by shoveling ‘the most precious poop in the world’ from the enclosure into the trailer so it could be transported for use elsewhere. James then took us to visit Baraka, a semi-tame Black rhino that is looked after due to his inability to survive in the wild resulting from his blindness. This provided an up-close look at the distinguishing features of the various rhino species. Finally, we were taken around the information center where the students could handle various skulls and skins and learn about the difficulties, costs and successes of endangered species conservation. James also provided a crucial reminder that we, as humans, should learn from the situation that the Northern White rhino is in to avoid repeating it in the future, and that change is on the shoulders of everyone, even teenage students from Sweden.
The night was spent at Hippo Hide campsite in Ol Pejeta, listening to the sounds of hyena and lion going about their nightly business. This gave the students a real experience of camping in the African bush which they were all awed by.
Day 3 kicked off with a talk on ecological monitoring at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Students then had the opportunity to get involved in the ongoing lion tracking program. We were introduced to the equipment used, including a radio receiver for determining the direction of the collared lion. We then set off to find said lion, whereupon the students had to consider the data recorded, including habitat, other wildlife, and behavior.
From this great viewing of lions, we headed to the Ol Pejeta boundary where wildlife corridors have been constructed to allow wildlife to move across an extended range, throughout Laikipia and up to Mt. Kenya. Eva explained why this is important for individual species and for the broader ecosystem and how this can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. These corridors are specially constructed to allow all animals except rhino to pass, so that Ol Pejeta can fully protect its rhino population from poaching.
The afternoon of day 3 was spent at the rhino cemetery where memorials have been erected for all the rhino that have died on Ol Pejeta, followed by a walk along the river at ‘Hippo Hide’ in search of (no surprises here…) hippos. Unfortunately, the hippos were very good at hiding but the walk presented a great opportunity to introduce the students to the birds of the Kenyan bush.
After dinner, we were treated to a night game drive, guided by Ol Pejeta rangers. This was an exhilarating experience for the students who enjoyed finding animals by their shining eyes and seeing the different behavior of animals at night. The drive culminated in a beautiful sighting of a white rhino with her calf, before we headed back to camp for some well-earned rest.
Day 4 saw the students’ education change direction slightly to focus on the livestock that Ol Pejeta keeps as a full time livestock ranch as well as wildlife conservancy. We travelled to one of the Spray Races where the herds of beautiful Boran cows were being sprayed with insecticide against ticks. This was the basis of a discussion of the unique challenges of integrating livestock and wildlife conservation, including disease spread and predation. The students were rightly concerned about the environmental impact of the insecticide itself (which we were told breaks down very quickly and so has no lasting environmental impact) and the vegetarians among them had some queries about the slaughtering of the cattle for beef. This experience also served to highlight the bigger picture of land management in rural Kenya, including all its complexity and connectivity.
Tents were then packed and we headed back to the RVA camp for lunch before heading back to Irura Primary to finish the work that had been started at the beginning of the week. All the painting was completed and the teachers and students were extremely grateful for all the work. To finish off the day, the Swedes chose to do either rock climbing or a bush craft session, which included learning to throw Maasai spears and to make fire with sticks, which proved much harder than expected.
Day 5: On the final day, the student got to choose between rock climbing, modern archery or mountain biking. These activities were enjoyed by all, with the Archers continually requesting ‘just one more shot…’ and the teacher claiming that his mountain biking was ‘fantastic- the most fun I have had since I came to Kenya’.
That rounded off the RVA trip and the Swedish school then loaded into their mini buses and headed back to Nairobi, hopefully with lasting and life-changing experiences and memories.