Don’t know what you got til it’s gone.

Some of my favourite ‘work memories’ are from my first job. I was 19 years old and had just graduated from college. I joined the college, working in the Community Relations Department. We were a close team of about seven people and what stands out for me was how much we laughed together. We even socialised together and often talked about vacationing together. One of my colleagues often told me ‘You’ll never find a team like this again’. Of course, I didn’t believe him – I was 19 and thought ‘it’s always going to be this way’. Of course it wasn’t.

My point is, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

Joseph Wachira, a keeper at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, says goodbye to Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros. Sudan died in 2018. Two females of the subspecies remain.
Ami Vitale followed Sudan’s story and captured this moment shortly before his death. Read her story from NatGeo.

In 2018 I read a news story about the death of Sudan, the last known male of his species – the Northern White Rhino. By that time I’d been on safari quite often, having lived in Swaziland for a year and travelling in South Africa and Sri Lanka. I had seen Rhino on several occasions, including during an early evening game drive where they were grazing away right beside our vehicle. They couldn’t see us clearly in the fading light, and we remained absolutely silent as they slowly munched their way along. With their poor eyesight we were probably just a big dark shape that smelled a bit funny; we were stopped on a dirt road in Kruger National Park.

To raise money for preserving the Rhino, Sudan joined Tinder – he was called the most eligible bachelor in the world!

Read about it

Reading about Sudan, I remember wondering whether the Rhino I’d seen were Northern White, or Black, or some other subspecies. I had no idea. To be truthful I wasn’t that excited about Rhino – compared to elephants or giraffes, I just didn’t find them terribly interesting. But reading about the end of a species made me terribly sad, and the photo of Sudan with his keeper brought on tears. (Cue the shoulder-shaking, nose-running type of tears). I felt guilty for not appreciating something that I could never get back. The photo was haunting.

“Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind.”

NatGeo photographer Ami Vitale on Instagram

Fast forward two years, and I’m ‘stuck’ in Kenya due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. I say ‘stuck’ almost facetiously because, although I can’t continue with my immediate plans to move to Switzerland, I’m riding out the pandemic at a safari lodge and wildlife conservancy. Pinch me. My breakfast table often offers views of four or five species of animals – Giraffe, Zebra, Buffalo, Warthog, Impala…. A few times a week I’m able to head out for a game drive and search for the lion and leopard, and check on which species are having babies. (So far I’ve seen a Wildebeest and an Impala just moments after they were born!).

Zebra at Chui Lodge
A Zebra wanders across my view while I’m having breakfast. Lockdown life at Chui Lodge.

Since we can still travel within Kenya, I recently visited Ol Pejeta. At first I didn’t recognize the name of the sanctuary right away, but the more we talked about it I remembered Sudan. Ol Pejeta is his final resting place, and where his two descendants, now the last of their species, are still living. Scientists still have hope that they can restore the species through IVF.

Safari guide and photographer Geoff Mayes made it possible for me to meet the two remaining descendants of Sudan. He got down on the ground for a close-up shot. Amazing! Watch a video of our encounter on his Instagram.

I can only describe the experience of meeting the two remaining Northern White Rhino as enchanting. What a tremendous privilege to meet the rangers who diligently protect them and care for them; they literally risk their lives defending the Rhino against poachers. As they wandered around our car, I reached out to touch their horns – knowing that what I held in my hand was considered by some people to be worth killing for; the main reason these animals have been wiped out.

This time I was seeing Rhino with new appreciation, and I marvelled at their slow movement – graceful for such a large animal. Their ears flicked back and forth, gathering information that their eyes couldn’t capture. They are short-sighted but there is an intelligence in those eyes. They were quite playful, having become accustomed to being around their keepers and the rangers, and reaching out for the carrots offered to draw them near for our observation. What a special moment!

An unforgettable moment.

So here I am. More than 30 years after my first work experience, again learning the lesson of valuing what each season in life has to offer; remembering that ‘now’ might be fleeting and I need to savour the sweetness it offers. The time I spent with those Rhino is sticking with me – I keep returning to those memories and the precious photos I have. I feel like I’ve touched the damage we leave on this world. We’ve taken one of the largest, strongest mammals and turned it into something weak and threatened. Shame on us.

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. (Joni Mitchell)