Going to the Front Lines of Conservation Efforts in Kenya

Tufts Travel-Learn safari visits sanctuaries for elephants, chimpanzees, giraffes, and the last two northern white rhinos
A herd of elephants
Elephants in Kenya. Photo: Chris Whittier

Tufts University alumni embarked on a 10-day safari to Kenya in early November through the Tufts Travel-Learn Program. Part of the Office of Alumni Engagement, Travel-Learn organizes trips worldwide with expert faculty guides for alumni, parents, and friends of Tufts.

Christopher Whittier, V97, director of the Master of Conservation Medicine (MCM) Program at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, hosted the trip. Drawing on more than 30 years of experience in wildlife conservation, Dr. Whittier wove cultural and environmental lectures and anecdotes throughout the tour to complement the spectacular sites. He joined the faculty at Tufts after years with the Smithsonian Institution and has worked extensively with both species of wild gorillas and with chimpanzees in Tanzania with world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.

“Three of my former students went on the trip, which was rare and remarkable,” admits Whittier of MCM graduates Danielle Sosnicki, VG17, a PhD candidate in the Cornell-Smithsonian Joint Graduate Training Program; Christine Downs, VG15, environmental protection specialist at the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, and Autumn Dutelle, VG14, integrative veterinary medical oncologist in Colorado. Tufts alumnus Real Provencher, E75, and his family rounded out the group.

“Being with MCM alumni made the trip more special because we’re all wildlife nerds. Everyone has their animals that they’re excited to see,” Downs contends. “Chris is a subject matter expert and has the passion, education, and knowledge to put everything in context for the group.”

The trip began in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, with stops at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for orphaned elephants and the Giraffe Centre for endangered Rothschild giraffes.

“Learning about conservation in the classroom, even in field and lab courses, is not the same as seeing it in practice, in person. It was amazing,” Sosnicki acknowledges.

They headed south to Amboseli National Park, where they planted trees with the local Masai people and saw herds of elephants and other wildlife set against the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Sosnicki was amazed by her first safari, “It was mind-blowing,” she shares. “I had never seen all the species together in their natural habitat, unlike the zoo where the animals are separated. It was inspiring to see the ultimate goal of why I do what I do.”

The group traveled to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, home to the world’s last two northern white rhinos.

“We did lion tracking in the morning, then the chimpanzee sanctuary, and rhinos in the afternoon—a lifetime's worth of things in one day,” Sosnicki beams.

After spotting several lions in the bush, they visited Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, to which Whittier has a special connection. Fifteen years ago, he helped deliver a chimpanzee rescued from the black market to this sanctuary (where he thrives with many other rescued chimps that can’t return to the wild).

“It’s not uncommon for baby chimps and gorillas to get captured in the illegal wildlife trade,” explains Whittier. “He probably came from Congo and was smuggled into Rwanda to be smuggled out again—that’s why they end up in sanctuaries. If they’re lucky, they are found alive before they end up somewhere.”

The crew ended the day with rhinos. Whittier explained that the last few northern white rhinos were moved into the sanctuary for protection and to breed, which unfortunately was unsuccessful. The lone two are a mother and daughter, so plans are in place to transfer banked embryos into southern white rhino surrogates to potentially keep the northern white rhinos from extinction.

Sosnicki first learned about the northern white rhinos several years ago. “It inspired me to get into conservation in the first place. I study sperm physiology and am interested in how reproductive technologies can be used as conservation tools for endangered and extinct species.”

She described the encounter as bittersweet. “It was exciting to see them, but also sobering that these are the last two on the planet.”

The group concluded the trip in the savanna grasslands of Masai Mara National Reserve in the Great Rift Valley. Exacerbated by severe drought in Kenya, “We saw local people with cattle, grazing in the national parks. It’s the only place where people can find fresh water. Cattle, sheep, and goats come nose-to-nose with wildebeests, zebras, and antelope and there’s the potential for disease transfer,” Whittier explains.

On one safari day, they caught several rare sightings: a leopard hunting during the day, a serval, two cheetahs with their cubs, lions on a kill, and a hippo crossing the road.

“I’ve gone on wildlife safaris in Africa, this was the craziest safari day I’ve ever had, including the sheer number of wildlife we saw—all types of birds, elephants, cape buffalo, lions, spotted hyenas, wildebeests, giraffes, impala, gazelle, baboons,” Downs claims. “Chris joked to the guide that he needed the leopard tortoise for his ‘Little Five’ and the guide found one.”

The group checked the Big Five (rhinoceros, elephant, lion, buffalo, and leopard) off their lists. “The term Big Five came from trophy hunters as the hardest animals to hunt. The safari community has stolen the Big Five idea—to see, not to shoot,” says Whittier, who completed his lifetime Little Five (elephant shrew, antlion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver, and leopard tortoise) on the trip.

“This is the fifth decade I’ve been in Africa,” Whittier reports. “It’s a bookend for me to see Africa change,or not change, during that time. It was a real privilege to go out with some of my students. It’s a testament to the MCM program and to Tufts.”

Tufts Travel-Learn is returning to Africa in October with Felicia Nutter, V93, director of the International Veterinary Medicine Program at Cummings School, hosting “Gorillas in the Rift: An Adventure in Uganda.” Interested? There is an information session on April 22 at noon for the next Tufts Travel-Learn trip.

Cummings School offers a variety of graduate programs where you can make a difference. Learn more about our MS in conservation medicine, animals and public policy, or infectious disease and global health.