Davison’s latest photobook evokes the simple yet sublime lives of Najin and Fatu, the last of a species on the brink of extinction
Najin and her daughter Fatu are the last northern white rhinos on earth. They live at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Central Kenya, protected 24/7 by metal gates and armed guards. Without this security, they would become victims of the brutal poaching that killed so many of their once-thriving subspecies that roamed the African savanna. Now, illegal hunting and natural disasters have reduced Najin and Fatu’s existence to a story of tragedy. The death of Sudan – the last male – in March 2018 rendered what scientists call a ‘functional extinction’.
At the end of 2019, Jack Davison travelled to Ol Pejeta, on commission for The New York Times Magazine. For 10 days he followed ‘the girls’ – as the caretakers call them – plodding around a 100-acre field, chewing on grass, and scraping their horns against the metal gates that protect them. Now, an extended edit of Davison’s images are reproduced in a photobook and accompanying special edition. Published by Loose Joints, Ol Pejetaaims to raise €10,000 in sales, which will be donated to the conservancy, its caretakers, and other wildlife organisations.
“When you catch sight at them, there’s definitely a sense of awe. They appear as prehistoric boulders on the horizon, and their bulk and age seems immense,” says Davison. “But they also have the serenity and sweetness of cows. They lead quite an undramatic life for being at this precipice of extinction. Their day-to-day is actually very calm and simple.”
As the last remaining northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu have been photographed extensively. But these images are not classic wildlife photographs. There are no wide-angle shots, captured in crisp, vivid colours; nor do they depict rare or splendid moments, shot from afar with a long lens. Davison is up close, capturing contours of dusty grey that stretch across the frame like geological formations, and moments of tenderness that evoke the intimate bonds between the caretakers and the animals they live to protect.
Most of Davison’s time at Ol Pejeta was spent with Zacharia, one of the lead caretakers. “He was one of the most fantastic, beautiful humans I’ve ever spent time with,” says Davison, explaining that it was important to capture “the tenderness and touch” between Zacharia and the rhinos. “Watching his bond, and being able to see the way he talks to them, and the tender tactility between them was really special. It took a couple of days for me to even get close Najin, before she’d tolerate me being a hairspan away,” he says.
It is difficult to interpret this story as anything other than a tragedy. In May 2019, the United Nations reported an unprecedented rise in extinction rates of a million plant and animal species. “[Najin and Fatu] are just a figurehead for a much larger extinction that’s going on everywhere with a lot less glamorous species,” Davison points out. “They are kind of like the celebrities of the animal world.”
But, there is also hope. In January 2020, scientists successfully fertilised five eggs harvested from Najin and Fatu, with the frozen sperm of two male northern white rhinos. Davison hopes that his project will encourage people to think seriously about the impact of our existence on the animals with which we share this earth, but also, that although we find ourselves on the precipice of a global crisis, there is still hope.
Ol Pejeta by Jack Davison is published by Loose Joints, to raise funds for the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, its caretakers, and BioRescue, the organisation developing fertilisation technologies.
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.