Michael Werikhe

In memory of Kenya's Rhino Man

It was the first day of August and I had recently arrived in Kenya to follow the translocation of eighteen black rhinos which Save the Rhino International had helped fund. An email was waiting for me – it was from Jane at the office in London and read “Michael Werikhe is sick and was admitted to hospital ten days ago. Can you find out more?”

It had been on Michael’s recommendation that we supported this translocation programme and I had been surprised not to have seen him here in Nairobi National Park with the capture team. I phoned the hospital immediately and with some surprise was put straight through to Michael himself, and yet he was not himself at all, in fact I had to ask him twice to repeat his name. It must be the drugs, I thought, but as no-one seemed able to tell me what was wrong with him I decided to fly to Mombasa to find out for myself. Armed with biltong, Swiss chocolates and magazines I arrived at the Pandaya Memorial Hospital.  I was shocked to find Michael surrounded by friends and family, heads bent in solemn prayer.  An aunt of his, I think, was leading these and I was invited to join in, but I held back, not wanting to intrude and, whilst Michael could not see me, I could see him, and I was unprepared for what I saw.

Propped up by a couple of pillows he lay naked but for a sheet over him. A drip fed him through his nose and, through his glasses, his eyes looked this way and that, rolling around, out of control.  He was frightened, and yet it was obvious how much he fought against it by the way his legs moved around, as if on an imaginary bicycle. Kenya’s Rhino Man – who had walked across continents to publicise the rhino’s plight – was reduced to this helpless state.

The only thing I could do was to guarantee payment for stronger drugs, which he didn’t respond to. Michael died less than forty eight hours later on Monday 9th August 1999 at 10.00am.  Africa had lost an incredible ambassador, the conservation world a prodigy, and I, a friend.

The first time I saw Michael Werikhe was when he gave a talk about rhinos. It was at the Nairobi Park Main Gate and, under and acacia tree, this studious looking man talked eloquently about the state of the black rhino.

The armchair conservationists of Nairobi listened attentively, for they knew this man was the future for wildlife conservation. They also all wanted him to work for them. It was rare for an African to take up a cause of this nature and, having walked continents to publicise the rhino’s plight, they needed no convincing of his commitment. But Michael was not to be bought, and he remained defiant that he could be more effective working independently, driven by his own passions, not by the dictates of a bureaucratic organisation.

As for me, his words left an indelible stamp on my memory, but it wasn’t for another six years that we were to meet.  I had set up Save the Rhino International and, in its third year, I felt it was time to do a walk of our own.  I wanted to publicise the plight of the rhino to the people of Africa – the ultimate guardians of wildlife.

Michael Werikhe lived and worked in Mombasa, and this was where I wanted to start our walk, ending up on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.  I remember vividly our first meeting outside the Castle Hotel in Mombasa.  He had put on some weight since I saw him but the energy was there and it was infectious.

We talked for hours about rhinos, people and the fundraising expedition I was planning.

He agreed to become Patron of the walk and, without any resistance from his employers, took three or four days off to recce the route with me.  Three months later I returned to Mombasa with a team and rhino costume. Michael hadn’t wasted any time, and with boundless energy and efficiency he had whipped up tremendous local support for the walk. The press were briefed that the Rhino Man was on the move again and thus covered it from every angle. Somewhat embarrassed, but in high spirits, I remember walking through Mombasa, the traffic at a halt and people lining the streets cheering! Accompanying us were hundreds of school children, they surrounded the rhino costume and held up a banner saying “conservation on the move”. I began to realise who had been behind all this; Kenya’s conservation hero was on the road again and we were very fortunate to be part of it.  It didn’t take me long to realise that Michael’s priorities lay with the rural communities who lived side by side with wildlife.  Whenever I spoke to him from London his persistent worry was that of the weather and what effect it would be having on the farmers.  He knew that a drought, coupled with hungry elephants, would break them and further widen the divide between African people and wildlife.  Consequently, most of the conservation work Save the Rhino funded in Tsavo was community based.

Over the next few years Michael made numerous trips overseas to the US and UK.  He became one of Disney’s Conservation Heroes alongside such luminaries as Jane Goodall and George Schaller.  Earlier this year he was invited by the UK Rhino group as African keynote speaker for the “Mayday for Rhinos” at the Royal Geographical Society. However, his most important work was back at home with his people. His ability to make himself heard, to be respected by so many people, stemmed from his insistence to remain independent and receive no special benefits.  Some say he had a Saint-like quality about him, but most Europeans never understood him, particularly the ones who lived in Africa. How could this humble African devote so much of his time to conservation and not want to benefit from it?

His altruism knew no bounds, and on his death the BBC World Service nominated him ‘African of the Millennium’ – a fitting tribute to a man who, with no formal training or financial backing, showed what could be done with determination and faith in Africa and its people.

David Stirling
Founder, Save the Rhino International