Years ago, on assignment from TIME magazine, the photojournalist Justin Mott went undercover in Hanoi to document the black-market sale of rhino horn; posing as a buyer, he held a severed horn in his hands. Like every other time he’s witnessed animal cruelty, the photographer wasn’t able to shake it, and the killing and suffering of rhinos continued to haunt him.
The memory of that severed horn stayed with Mott for about a decade–until in 2019, he traveled to Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy to meet the last two northern white rhinos, Najin and her daughter Fatu, in person. “There I was in Kenya, touching the horn of Najin and feeling her in my hand,” he remembers. “I was so overwhelmed with a variety of emotions. It was just so damn powerful. I can’t even explain it properly.”
It’s a feeling the caretakers and guards at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy can understand–and it’s one that inspires them to risk their lives for the rhinos under their protection. As the first chapter in Kindred Guardians, Mott’s ongoing, self-funded project about people who care for animals, No Man’s Land tells their story.
Sudan, the last remaining male of the northern white rhino species, died in 2018. He left behind a legacy that’s carried on by his daughter, Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu, at Ol Pejeta. At the conservancy, the rhinos live under the watchful eyes of caretakers and members of the NPR (National Police Reservists), as they patrol the area for potential poachers, who–along with habitat loss–have driven the sub-species to the brink of extinction.
For Mott, the first challenge was gaining access to Ol Pejeta. “People can come to see Fatu and Najin, as the public is able to view them from a distance from behind a protective fence,” he says. But Mott is not a conventional wildlife photographer; his goal wasn’t to photograph the animals from a distance but to capture their relationships with people up-close. For that, he needed special permission, and in the end, his persistence, dedication to the cause, and willingness to be unobtrusive opened doors.
On his first trip to Ol Pejeta, the photojournalist spent about two weeks camping on the conservancy grounds, along with volunteers, researchers, and other journalists. He woke up every day at 4:30 in the morning, donned a headlamp, and made a cold cup of instant coffee station before continuing on through the bush and arriving at the conservancy gates an hour later–just in time to see the sunrise. The rest of his days were devoted to shadowing Zacharia and Peter, two of the rhino caregivers at Ol Pejeta, and documenting their work.
The life of a rhino guardian is marked by passion and sacrifice. “Since the conservancy is so massive and on its own piece of land, many of the rangers and caretakers live far away from their families in an onsite camp and ultimately spend more time with the rhinos than they do with their families,” Mott explains. They spend 21 days on the job and six days off with their families.
For the rangers, mortal danger is a fact of life. “They risk their lives daily,” the photographer says. “One of the rangers I got to know, who is only in his late twenties, had gotten in a firefight with some poachers and had to kill them in self-defense. Not only are they risking their lives by dealing with deadly poachers, but they also patrol and camp through the night surrounded by deadly predators. I have so much respect for them.”
Still, despite the dangers, life at Ol Pejeta could be slow and peaceful, and for Mott, those quiet moments were some of the most precious. “The guys and the rhinos pretty much do the same thing every day: feed them some carrots and let them into the larger pasture,” he tells us. “The rhinos eat, drink, poop, nap, repeat.
“Sometimes, the guys rest in the fields with them. Sometimes, they observe the rhinos while sitting on a gigantic pile of rhino feces. I just like to be there to observe and capture all these little things. It might seem monotonous, but it’s beautiful and special to be allowed into someone’s life and to be able to capture the little nuances.”
Mott forged friendships with the caretakers that he maintains today. “I became closest with Zacharia, the lead caretaker, as we talked all day and learned about each other,” he tells us. “His father was a ranger, and he loves Fatu and Najin like family.”
That bond between caretaker and rhino goes both ways. “When Fatu or Najin got too close to me or the caretakers felt I was in a potentially dangerous situation, they would talk to them, and surprisingly, they would listen. It’s amazing to witness a human talking to an animal of that stature and having them listen.”
The safety of the animals was just as important to Mott as his own, especially when it came to getting close. “My project is all about capturing intimate moments between people and animals, and at the same time, I must make sure everything is all done ethically and that people understand the context of why these people get close to the animals they are helping.
“For example, these caretakers spend more time with the rhinos than they do with their own families, and the only reason the caretakers can get close to the rhinos is that the rhinos have grown up in captivity. You couldn’t do this with wild rhinos–nor should you–and it’s important my work conveys that message.”
At one point during Mott’s visit, Zacharia and Peter invited him to visit the grave belonging to Sudan, the last male of the species. While attempts were made to mate Sudan during his lifetime, they were unsuccessful, and his death was a devastating blow not only to those who knew him but to conversationalists around the world.
“They asked me if I wanted to come along with them to see Sudan’s grave, a short distance from where Fatu and Najin roam daily,” the photographer remembers. “While we were, there I saw some families come by to teach their children about the plight of the rhinos. It was so sad to watch the children process this, but I’m glad people are teaching the youth about these issues.”
Rhino horn is sold as part of the wildlife trade in Vietnam, China, South Korea, and beyond, due in part to its rumored medicinal properties. Rhino horns are unique because they are composed entirely of keratin, the same substance that makes up fingernails and hair, although there is no evidence to suggest it can treat any illness in humans. “When I talked to the caretakers about how and why people consume the horn on false beliefs, they were just so disappointed and confused. It’s challenging for them.”
Still, there might be reason to hope. Earlier this year, Mott returned to Ol Pejeta for a second time to document a historic procedure by the BioRescue Program–a collaborative effort by Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), Avantea, Dvur Králové Zoo, and the Kenya Wildlife Service–in which veterinarians and scientists harvested eggs from Najin and Fatu.
The eggs were then moved to Italy, where an embryo was created with semen from deceased males of the species. The ultimate hope is that the embryos can be transferred into a female southern white rhino, a surrogate mother, who will then give birth to a healthy calf and save the subspecies from being lost forever.
Mott tells us, “Each chapter is supposed to be a one time visit, but since this story has resonated with me, I’ve been back a second time (to document the procedure) and have plans to continue to document this story as it unfolds.” In the meantime, he has stayed in touch with the team at Ol Pejeta. “We collaborate quite a bit on charitable events, and I donate and do whatever I can to help their cause,” he says. “My project is completely self-funded at this point, and a series of each chapter of my images is donated to the people and organizations I document.”
Saving a subspecies with only two surviving members is a historic undertaking–but despite the odds, Mott says the caretakers and rangers at Ol Pejeta hold onto hope for a better future, just as he once held onto Najin’s horn. “Many of the caretakers are optimistic that if they do their part, the rest of the world will do its part too,” he tells me. “I hope they are right. They see the worst of humanity, but they see the best of the animal kingdom.”
You can donate to Ol Pejeta and support the incredible work they are doing here. Read more about the BioRescue program here. You can learn more about Kindred Guardians by visiting Mott’s website and following along on Instagram at @askmott. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more stories from the project, so stay tuned. Mott plans to make Kindred Guardians into a non-profit book and traveling exhibition.
All images and captions © Justin Mott