In 1988, Ken Kuhle a conservationist and engineer by profession, with support from many concerned conservationists and with encouragement from the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), decided to form a conservation charity. His reason for setting it up was the human-wildlife conflict in the salient section of the Aberdares near Mweiga and Nyeri areas of Central Kenya. The poaching of rhino and elephant had by then reached alarming levels and was of concern especially to players in the thriving tourism industry. On the other front, farming communities with land bordering the Aberdare had been demoralized by the constant raiding of their farmland by wild animals. Their joint effort is what came to be known as the Rhino Ark, which enters its 21st anniversary with far reaching achievements and lessons learnt along the way.

The Rhino Ark Charitable Trust

Run by a management committee and under the current chairmanship of Colin Church, the trust has come to realize its original goal of protecting Africa’s endangered wildlife and water catchment areas of the Aberdares’ ecosystem.

From its beginning, the Rhino Ark’s focus has been to seek solutions that both conserve one of Kenya’s finest indigenous forests and its total habitat while also resolving the human-wildlife conflict. Its initial intention was to assist the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) in the financing of a protective fence around the salient area in which wildlife lodges and mobile safari camps operate. Indeed, thousands of tourists visit the Aberdare annually to see the Black Rhino and hosts of other wild animals in this natural habitat.

This objective has evolved over the years to move beyond protecting the black rhinoceros to embrace the fact that the Aberdare Ranges are a source of livelihoods for millions of people downstream who depend on it for their water supplies. The fence, upon erection, would stop wildlife from marauding onto farm land and protect the farming communities and their crops. In addition to curbing the then proliferating illegal logging, the fence would promote a harmonious existence between wildlife and local farmers.

Community Ownership

While the fundraising events and bilateral donor contributions could be counted on to bring the resources for the fencing project, community ownership and participation has been central to the success and sustainability of the undertaking. This is evident from the involvement of the communities living along the fence line in implementing the project. An example is seen in the Kipipiri section where two community groups provided labour at no cost.

Upon asking her view on the fencing project, Felicitas Nyambura, a farmer, says “With wild animals on their side, it is no longer a problem”. Indeed farmers like her are the most valued guardians of the fence and its value in managing the ecosystem. Through its fence community manager, the Rhino Ark has reached out to educate communities near the Aberdare. He regularly teaches them on the importance of the fence and its benefits to the community.

The Fence

By March 2009, the Rhino Ark anticipates 370 kilometres (km) coverage of the fence which will have extended by a further 30 km by September. Not only is it electrified but also rises seven feet above the ground with an additional three below. These 400 km of wire will have encircled 2000 square km of forest area.

An environmental assessment done in 1999 on the value of the fence by KWS and Kenya Forestry Services (KFS) says “ As a method of discouraging conflict between wildlife and humans, and especially the damage to crops caused by large mammals, the fence has proved to be a very effective tool”. It reads on that “If the success of the fencing, where it is in place, is repeated around the rest of the Aberdare Conservation Area, then it is likely that this essential natural resource can be preserved for generations to come”. A decade later and the Rhino Ark fencing project could be said to be a worldwide-known success story thanks to the many Kenyans who have supported the cause.

But Rhino Ark Chairman, Colin Church says fences are not a solution countrywide “It’s not the solution for wildlife all over Kenya. We stress it every time: wildlife cannot be fenced in everywhere. There are realities that we have to face. One is that we have created an island ecosystem, so there could be long term challenges”. This has led Rhino Ark and KWS towards devising ways of linking the Aberdares with Mt. Kipipiri neighbouring Mt. Kenya and the open rangelands to the north.

While the trust has entered the final stages of fence construction, the challenge now is in the maintenance of the project. 75% of the Rhino Ark funding currently goes towards this with the remainder taking care of the construction work. Colin Church, its Chairman, has indicated that they are finalizing the establishment of a Management Trust to oversee the maintenance work. This he says “Will ensure that the fence is professionally executed, independently financed and is secured by gazettement”.

Blueprint

The Rhino Ark initiative with its achievement across the years is a blueprint for ecosystem management in the tropical zones. “These areas unlike their temperate counterparts are very fragile and hugely valuable with millions of lives dependent upon them”, says Colin Church. He further asserts “…that they need serious investment of taxpayer’s money to provide them with the legislative and management framework needed to secure them”. The other ingredient towards this ecosystem management blueprint, he adds on “…is that upon securing of the target zones, their value is principally to conserve watershed and work positively for climate stability”.

Rhino Charge

The Rhino Charge is Kenya’s home-grown solution to fundraising towards an environmental cause. It is the flagship event for the Aberdare Fence project and remains a world unique fund raising tool. Its creativity; an off road four wheel drive event whereby each of the limited car entrants will have pledged a sum of money to enter the event. Held over the long June 1st weekend every year, it has constantly drawn crowds from far and wide and seen its popularity increase over the years.

While its basic concept is that each of the participating cars drives in a straight line as much as possible between checkpoint posts, the participants also require time management and bush skills. The event location, usually kept secret until the eve of the event, has constantly been at some of Kenya’s roughest and toughest terrains. It usually runs over three days across which crew registration and briefing happens within the first two days with the last day being for the main event. This has always been of great entertainment for locals and visitors as drivers go through the challenging terrain and punishing heat.

The 2008 edition, other than being the 20th of the series, was also unique in that real time monitoring of vehicle progress was done. This not only made it possible to establish the location of all competitors at all times but also enhanced the safety of the Rhino Charge event. The service was provided at half-cost by RiverCross Tracking, a Rhino charge partner. The edition was held at Namunyak Group Ranch in Samburu District and saw over Ksh. 2 million raised in camping fees. These funds usually go towards selected host community initiatives that focus on water, health and education as a way of giving back for use of the communal land.

The 2009 Rhino Charge 4X4 off road event on its part was held on the 31st of May in Mogoswok, Baringo District of Kenya and was well attended by thousands of fans and well wishers who helped raise a total of KShs 65,119,705.53.

The event was won by Mark Glen in Car no. 48 scoring a distance of 39.45Kilometeres and covering 12 Guard Posts. Second overall was Alan McKittrick in Car No.5 scoring 40.35 Kilometres over 12 Guard Posts.Third position was taken by Ian Duncan in Car No 2 who covered a distance of 12 Guard posts with a long distance of 42.21kms.

This event, Kenya’s largest and most successful fundraiser owes its success to Kenyans primarily. They not only commit specific pledges and collect the sponsorship for their participating cars but also go ahead to foot the cost of participating in the event for their vehicles and crew. As the event comes to its 21st edition, it is good to reflect on two facts; first that this event has been the major contributor to Rhino Ark’s Fund which has netted in close to 9 million US dollars over the 20 years of its existence, and secondly that the only reward for its participants is in knowing that their efforts go towards conservation work.

Corporate Partners and Individual Donors

Beyond the funds from the Rhino Charge fundraising event, Rhino Ark has engaged itself directly with corporate partners committed to solve environmental challenges. Since 2005, the European Union’s Biodiversity Conservation Programme (BCP) has made two grants totalling Ksh. 23.5 million while the Safaricom Foundation has donated Ksh.10 million, their latest effort being a Ksh. 2 million grant for the construction of two elephant grids for certain main road access to town reserve areas meant to stop the animals from straying onto farm land. On the other hand the Nation Media Group’s initiated Nation Aberdare Fund has collected over 17 million during its two year program (2002 – 2006).

The Rhino Ark Initiative is long-term one and as such there is a need for Kenyans to participate. This they can do through donations to the competing vehicles or through purchase of entry tickets to Rhino Ark’s annual raffle competition. It is a living demonstration of the Kenyan society fulfilling their social responsibility towards their environment.

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