Out of Africa
Meet Sudan, the world's last living northern white male rhino, and the Loyola student who helped take care of him
By Shanna Yetman
Loyola senior Olivia Urbanski wants to explore the world. And she’s known since she was a girl that she wanted to study in Africa. Urbanski, who is double majoring in environmental studies and international studies, recently got a taste of her dream job while serving as a wildlife conservation intern for Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
Tell us about Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
Ol Pejeta is four hours north of Nairobi at the foot of Mount Kenya. The conservancy isn’t closed off; there’s a fence, but there are open corridors that wildlife can roam through. All animals can pass in and out, except the rhinos. Ol Pejeta is a rhino sanctuary, so the rhinos stay inside the conservancy.
What was your favorite experience as an intern?
My favorite week was with the Wildlife Unit. During that time I got to hang out with the last northern white male rhino, Sudan. He’s in his 40s, which in human equivalency means he’s over 90.
What did you do as an intern for the Wildlife Unit?
General caretaking, like feeding Sudan. One day, when I was with him, his caretaker suggested we might give him a mud bath. He needs help bathing because of his age. Rhinos cover themselves in mud to protect their skin from the harsh sun—the mud almost acts like sunscreen. I was super excited at the prospect of bathing him, but then, of course, it rained over the lunch break, so I didn’t get the chance!
What is it like to be that close to a rhino?
It’s pretty crazy. When I met him for the first time I was nervous. He’s huge. You had to approach him on a certain side because one of his eyes is basically blind—and if he is startled he moves quickly. I’ve never even seen a rhino in my life before, much less touched one. But once I started petting him and massaging him he began to relax and almost rolled over. That’s when his caretaker told me I was doing a good job.
What was a typical day on the job like?
Every day my commute was a safari. I’d catch the staff bus to the conservancy around 7 a.m. and spend the hour-long ride looking out the window, seeing everything from elephants and giraffes to zebras on a daily basis. One day we even saw lions.
How did this internship affect your understanding of wildlife conservation?
I came into this internship thinking that conservation should always take precedence when managing natural resources, but now I know conservation is more complicated than that. There are so many different components to consider: how communities make a living, how people interact with wildlife, and so much more.
Yes, we need to conserve wildlife—but that should be balanced with other dimensions. I’m glad I was able to see this principle in action.