Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya, December 2020

October 28, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

As I mentioned in my previous blog about Nairobi National Park (link here), following our arrival in Kenya we experienced something of a delay in obtaining my family's residency documents. In addition, it took me some time to find a half-decent car* and so we didn't get out of Nairobi until December 2020, despite arriving in the country in August.

The day before the Christmas holidays (just in time!) we received these much-awaited residency documents - and naturally we were keen to get out to see Kenya. There were so many places that we wanted to visit that it was difficult to know where to start. After some deliberating we settled on the world-famous Ol Pejeta Conservancy** as what we hoped would be a nice introduction to safariing in this beautiful country. To keep costs down, we invested in camping equipment and 'self-camped' (we didn't have the luggage space to bring our own gear from the UK). We bought all of this from Decathlon which has stores in Nairobi. If you are adventurous (and not a banker), self-camping with your own gear is a very cost-effective way of seeing Kenya.

The drive up to Ol Pejeta (in the county of Laikipia) took us about 5 hours. It would have been quicker had my new car not already began to present the first (of many) mechanical issues. On arrival at the conservancy we had about an hour's drive through it to reach our campsite. At the time, it was necessary to book the entire campsite and we settled for the 'Ewaso' campsite.

On the way, we had an amazing encounter with our first reticulated giraffes (Giraffa reticulata):

Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)

Giraffe taxonomy is currently undergoing some revision, and a system recognising four species across Africa will likely become more widely adopted. Currently, the IUCN as well as most field guides refer to giraffes as being a single species.

Photographing giraffes is not easy - especially with prime lenses. They are one of few animals that often warrant the use of portrait orientation, however, in this photo I wanted to capture the whole family in their environment so I opted for landscape.

After locating the campsite and setting up camp we set out for an afternoon safari. Driving around the conservancy we occasionally encountered warthogs - sometimes individuals and sometimes quite large family groups:

Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)

There are two species of warthog found in Africa and these are the 'common' species (Phacochoerus africanus). I have found them to be another quite tricky species to photograph as they are very shy. Typically, when they see you, you have a few seconds before they run away!

An easier photographic opportunity came when we encountered our first Defassa waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus defassa). We found two males close to a river. As their name suggests, these antelopes are usually found near to water.

Defassa waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus defassa)Defassa waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus defassa) Defassa waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus defassa)Defassa waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus defassa)  

We didn't encounter too many birds, but we did have a couple of close encounters with familiar species:

Rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus)Rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus)

Yellow-necked spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus)Yellow-necked spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus) Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum)Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum)

As the light fell, we started to realise that we had become fairly lost! On our convoluted drive back to the campsite, we had one more encounter with a remarkably un-phased Bright's gazelle (Nanger granti notata) before we (just) made it the campsite before dark and went to sleep:

Bright's gazelle (Nanger granti notata)Bright's gazelle (Nanger granti notata)

The next morning we set out on another drive around the conservancy. The highlight of the morning was our first encounter with a black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis):

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

Black rhinos have a bit of a reputation for being ill-tempered. I would prefer to say that they just like a bit of personal space - which is fair enough! We were a good distance from this individual (photographed with a 300mm lens) and it didn't seem happy for us to be there - so we left it well-alone! In this photo you can see the hook-shaped lip which is one of the ways in which 'black' rhinos can be distinguished from the 'white' species (Ceratotherium simum).

You may note from the photos that the weather was distinctly different on both of these days. On the first day, it was heavily overcast - meaning that the light was soft and diffused but it was dark, requiring the use of a high ISO. On the second day it was completely clear which meant that after about 8:30am the sun was already high and very intense. After a year in Africa I have learned that the 'golden hour' here is only about 20mins long! On sunny days I usually put my camera away sometime between 8:30-9:00am - photos taken after this point generally look horrible, with harsh lighting.

With the light being harsh and the temperature climbing, during the late morning of the second day we decided to explore the 'other attractions' of Ol Pejeta. The conservancy has quite an unusual one in the form of a blind black rhino named 'Baraka'. Baraka is now completely dependent on humans and, under the careful supervision of his wards, can be fed by visitors. Once our daughter experienced this, it became a daily event during our stay there!

Baraka the blind black rhinocerosBaraka the blind black rhinoceros

A drive around the conservancy later that afternoon yielded one new encounter - a Jackson's hartebeest or lelwel (Alcelaphus buselaphus lelwel) - a rather endangered hartebeest subspecies:

Jackson's hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus lelwel)Jackson's hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus lelwel)

We also encountered a few more birds and late afternoon in particular seemed to be prime time to see male bustards displaying.

Blacksmith lapwing (Vanellus armatus)Blacksmith lapwing (Vanellus armatus) White-bellied bustard (Eupodotis senegalensis)White-bellied bustard (Eupodotis senegalensis)

The next morning I had pre-arranged to take my daughter to see the northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). These are the last two surviving individuals of their subspecies and they are kept under close supervision in their own fenced enclosure. Relentless poaching for their horns (fuelled by political instability and civil conflict) has now rendered them extinct in the wild. Interestingly, white rhinos were never actually native to Kenya. The northern subspecies instead used to range across Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Sudan.

The two remaining rhinos (named Najin and Fatu) are both females - the last male (Sudan) died in 2018. Prior to their life in Ol Pejeta they were living in a zoo in the Czech Republic. They were brought over in 2009 as part of an attempt to encourage them to breed, which they had failed to do whilst living in the zoo. In recent years, Ol Pejeta (and an international team of vets) has received worldwide attention for its attempts to carry out IVF using sperm from deceased males and egg cells from Najin and Fatu. Viable embryos have been created however neither Fatu or Najin are capable of being implanted and successfully gestating them. To produce a baby northern white rhino, a surrogate (southern white rhino) mother would have to be involved.

The plans for this continue, and updates can be obtained from Ol Pejeta's website (www.olpejetaconservancy.org). Developments on this story also regularly feature in international news reports.

Meeting Fatu and Najin up close was a privilege, though a sad experience:

Northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) - NajinNorthern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) - Najin Northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) - FatuNorthern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) - Fatu

After saying goodbye to Najin and Fatu we went on another drive around the conservancy. A highlight of the morning was seeing two reticulated giraffes 'necking'. This is a curious behaviour where males establish their dominance hierarchies by lining up and hitting each other with their heads! It is quite a spectacle though many giraffes suffer injuries as a result.

Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)

We also encountered a large herd of African buffalo (Syncerus caffer):

African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

A distant viewing of a mother and calf black rhino was another great encounter. In these photos you can see another issue with daytime safari photography - heat-haze, which makes it challenging to get sharp photos when photographing distant subjects:

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

We are now very familiar with olive baboons (Papio anubis), and they are not everyone's favourite animal! I, however, am a fan, and this was also our first ever encounter with them. We particularly enjoyed watching the babies riding on their mothers - clearly an effective way to get around:

Olive baboon (Papio anubis)Olive baboon (Papio anubis) Olive baboon (Papio anubis)Olive baboon (Papio anubis)

Another first for us was an encounter with black-backed jackals (Canis mesomelas) - elegant but fast-moving canines:

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)

A few more encounters with now-familiar mammals followed...

Common zebra (Equus quagga)Common zebra (Equus quagga) Common eland (Taurotragus oryx)Common eland (Taurotragus oryx) Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii)Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii)

...as did some great encounters with some stunning birds:

Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus)Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus) Crowned lapwing (Vanellus coronatus)Crowned lapwing (Vanellus coronatus) Kori bustard (Ardeotis kori)Kori bustard (Ardeotis kori)

A great ending to this day was our first ever encounter with African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana). It was a distant encounter, so I decided to try to be a little 'creative' with my photos!

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)

The next morning was our last for this part of the trip. When driving out of the conservancy, we had a great encounter with a pair of male Bright's gazelles duelling over females. I took hundreds of photos, but these are my favourites:

Bright's gazelle (Nanger granti notata)Bright's gazelle (Nanger granti notata) Bright's gazelle (Nanger granti notata)Bright's gazelle (Nanger granti notata)

Ol Pejeta's leaving present was one last (but close) encounter with a bull (male) elephant:

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)

That marked the end of our first proper adventure here in Kenya. From there we headed on to Lakes Elementaita and Naivasha - details to follow in my next post!



*Cars in Kenya are all imported and taxed at something close to 100%. This means that they are all insanely expensive. In addition, not many people here seem to value the necessity of maintaining them. Adding to that that the dire state of many of the roads, you have a perfect cocktail of over-priced and generally shoddy cars. Just my observation...

**I have only heard this term used here - it refers to what is basically a privately-owned nature reserve. Many of them appear to be former agricultural ranches or hunting reserves


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