Maasai warriors take to the cricket field to save the northern white rhino | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 10.08.2015
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Environment

Maasai warriors take to the cricket field to save the northern white rhino

For Kenya's Maasai warriors hunting has been a traditional rite of passage. Now they have dropped their spears and picked up cricket bats to raise awareness of the plight of a species whose future hangs by a thread.

Deep in the heart of Ol Pejetea Conservancy in Kenya, a crowd of spectators from around the world have gathered to watch a cricket match on what might well be the most remote and beautiful cricket field in the world.

The Maasai in Kenya are known as fearsome warriors who hunt lions as a traditional rite of passage to adulthood. But this group of 24 warriors has a different agenda. They have gathered on the foothills of the snow-capped Mount Kenya, dressed in traditional Maasai attire of checkered blankets and beaded ornaments, to raise awareness of the existential threat to northern white rhinos.

These two-ton giants are on the brink of extinction. Poaching has reduced their global population to just five animals.

Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia currently hosts three of the last northern whites in the world - the only surviving male of his species, Sudan and two females, Najin and Fatou.

Sonyanga Ole Ngais (photo: DW/A. Wasike)

Captain Sonyanga Ole Ngais says his team hopes to raise awareness of the critically endangered rhinos

The remaining two northern white rhinos are at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in California, and the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic.

From hunting to conservation

The Maasai Warriors are competing against the British Army Training Unit cricket team to raise funds to help curb the menace of poaching in Kenya.

A few years ago, the Maasai in Kenya knew nothing about cricket. That was until South African baboon researcher Aliya Bauer introduced the sport in an effort to discourage traditional Maasai hunting of wildlife.

Sonyanga Ole Ngais, captain of the Maasai Warriors says that through the sport they hope to help save the endangered rhinos.

"Down the memory lane the Maasai are known to be pastoralists and again doing the hunting, we are trying to change that culture. We are trying to make sure that everyone has that awareness of conservation."

Southern white female rhino, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Laikipia, Kenya (photo: DW/A. Wasike)

Scientists say a southern white rhino as surrogate mother offers the best hope for the future of the northern white rhino

"We are trying to tell the people to pull out their resources and to bring their energy and ideas and try to actually preserve the environment."

Experts at Ol Pejeta Conservancy - at the 90,000 acres one of the biggest rhino sanctuaries in East Africa - say that the future of the northern white hangs by a thread.

Elderly parents

The fate of the entire species rest on 42 year-old Sudan. At his advanced age, Sudan has been unable to mount a female. And researchers at the rhino sanctuary say that even if he were to manage, conception would be unlikely because of the poor quality of his sperm.

His two potential mates at Ol Pejeta are no spring chickens either. Najin, aged 25, has a degenerated uterus that cannot support pregnancy. At 30, Fatou is also too old to mate.

Scientists say the only route to producing a pure-bred northern white calf is in vitro fertilization (IVF). Ovum from female northern whites would be fertilized with Sudan’s sperm in the lab. A resulting embryo is then implanted into the uterus of a southern white rhino who is still young and healthy enough to carry the pregnancy.

Maasai Cricket Warriors, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Laikipia, Kenya (photo: DW/A. Wasike)

The Maasai Warriors are also raising awarness about sexual health and gender equality

But Richard Vigne, a rhino expert and director of Ol Pejeta Conservancy says the IVF treatment doesn't come cheap.

"The other technique is artificial insemination into southern white females to create a crossbred calf," he added. "It is not ideal but it is better than nothing. Either way, it's going to be a long, expensive process."

Which is why they are hoping that donations from well-wishers keen to see the species survive will help fund their work.

Education on the cricket field

Maasai warriors are doing their bit. Time once spent hunting is now dedicated to cricket - and spreading the word about conservation.

Maasai warrior warming up before a cricket match (photo: DW/A. Wasike)

Cricket has taken the place of hunting for the Maasai Warriors

"The Maasai these days are more preservationists of wildlife than they are persecutors of wildlife," says Vigne. "Not that I think that they were really persecutors of wildlife. They used to hunt lions as a show of manhood but actually they coexisted with wildlife very well."

The Maasai Cricket Warriors also tour schools across northern Laikipia, educating kids about environmental issues - as well as sexual health and gender equality. They promote peace building and conservation, and they teach and play cricket.

The Maasai team lost their match against to the British Army Training Unit cricket team. But judging by number of donations from the crowd, they may be winning the battle to save the northern white rhino.

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