At the launch of the Michael Werikhe Walk for the Rhino in America, Dr Richard Leakey had this to say. “We have come an extraordinarily long way to stand here on an evening in Nairobi and listen to plans to dispense enormous sums of money to countries other than our own, primarily as a result of the efforts of ourselves.” He then served as the Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Michael Werikhe, born on 25 May 1956, aimed to raise between USD 2 and 3 million during his six-month walk in the United States and Canada in aid of the black rhinoceros.
Priority rhino conservation projects in Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and, of course, Kenya received most of the funds. The Species Survival Plan of American zoos, a programme for breeding endangered animals in captivity received the rest.
It was a long road for Michael Werikhe. Since that day when he stepped into the office of the then Executive Director of the East African Wild Life Society, Nehemiah arap Rotich and announced that he wanted to walk from Nairobi to Mombasa for the Rhino. Rotich recalled how Werikhe convinced him that he could do it. Werikhe even decided to walk uphill, from Mombasa to Nairobi, to prove that conservation is difficult but worthwhile.
As for security, Werikhe simply brought along two of his pet snakes. Richard Leakey was there to welcome Werikhe at the end of the first walk. Both Nehemiah Rotich and David Western of Wildlife Conservation International saw him off on his second walk. The walk took him across the three countries of East Africa. Them Mushrooms, the well-known Kenyan band, composed and sang ‘Save the Rhino’ for him. The song featured in a promotional video about Michael Werikhe’s walk in the US.
For his third trek, Werikhe hiked across five European countries. From Assisi in Italy over the Alps into Switzerland, through Germany and The Netherlands and across to Great Britain. With the World Wide Fund for Nature, he raised a million dollars for rhino conservation projects in Africa. In recognition of his crusade for the rhino, UNEP awarded him the ‘Global 500’ honour roll in 1989.
“Planning for the American walk began in March 1988 when the news was received that Michael Werikhe would be receiving the award of the Goldman Environmental Foundation of San Francisco, California,” said Helen Gichohi of Wildlife Conservation International. She also served as the chairman of the Michael Werikhe Walk Committee in Nairobi. She recalled that the walk really got off the ground, thanks to a start-up grant of USD 30,000 from the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation.
The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, AAZPA, and the Discovery Channel took up the challenge of matching the grant and organising the walk in North America. In the audience were then ambassador Smith Hempstone of the USA, representatives of Associated Vehicle Assemblers and Caltex, and a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the conservation movement in Kenya.
“The fact that you are from Africa, and as an African doing something for conservation, will not be lost on the American people,” Richard Leakey said to Michael Werikhe in parting. “Regardless of the financial outcome [of the walk, the political, sociological and public respect outcome is already assured.” As Michael Werikhe walked to the podium to bring the International Conference on Rhinoceros Conservation and Biology to a close. He could feel the tension in the air.
A highly charged meeting of top scientists and policymakers in San Diego, California, had started all of this. The raging debate between the proponents of captive breeding programmes in zoos in the North, and those who felt that protecting rhinos in their natural habitat in the South could achieve more results per money. “This was the atmosphere under which Michael had to give the closing address,” said Helen Gichohi, who attended the Rhino conference in San Diego.
“As always, he rose to the occasion. He spoke to a totally silent audience for over half an hour,” Gichohi remembers. Michael captivated them with what he had to say about his quest to save the rhino. Surprisingly, he knew next to nothing of its biology. He shared his views on the role of zoos and field conservationists. He lamented that a divided and self-serving conservation community would achieve nothing.
Michael Werikhe’s address to the International Conference on Rhinoceros Conservation and Biology was one of the highlights of his 2,400-KM walk in the United States and Canada to raise concern and funds for the black rhinoceros, one of Africa’s most endangered animals.
Michael Werikhe believed stakeholders could guarantee the future of the black rhino if they worked together. Not to mention the future of conservation. He dedicated his life to this philosophy.
Perhaps, today, whatever little remains of our black rhino population owes its existence to the campaign he began. For this relentless effort, we honour him at the Kenya Geographic Hall of Fame.
Sadly, Michael, then a widower, died on August 9, 1999. Complications from injuries he sustained in an attack three weeks previously in Mombasa. Thugs attacked him on his way to work. As a result, he left behind two daughters.