Northern white rhino portraits win prestigious award

Photographer Ian Aitken has won a prestigious award from the Applied Arts Magazine in Canada (nature/landscape category) for his portraits of the northern white rhinoceros, taken during a pro bono shoot for Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Fauna & Flora International’s partner in Kenya.

The northern white rhinoceros is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, although many fear it may now be extinct in the wild.

In December 2009, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) assisted in the drastic action to relocate the last four known breeding individuals from Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic to Ol Pejeta, in the hope that they would be encouraged to breed in a secure natural environment.

Winning portrait (Najin). Credit: Ian Aitken.

One of the winning portraits in its hand-carved frame. Credit: Ian Aitken.

Here, Ian Aitken describes his hair-raising and life-changing encounter with these extraordinary animals:

“In January 2012, I was invited to Ol Pejeta to photograph the conservancy’s animals for use in marketing materials. I knew the northern white rhino had been relocated there and was looking forward to an encounter with them.

“Although I photographed them several times, I was not satisfied with my approach. I had also begun to formulate the idea of producing a set of limited edition prints to raise awareness and funds, so on the last morning of the trip I arranged to get some close-up portraits with the iconic Mount Kenya in the background and the rhinos in the foreground.

“I knew how rare these animals were, but preparing for the photo, walking through the scrub with the rhinos close by, I was really struck by the loneliness and unbelievable fragility of their situation.

“With the guards’ help I had managed to get the youngest female, Fatu, into exactly the right position, when suddenly she turned and started walking towards me. I was terrified – they are huge animals – but I carried on taking photos, stepping backwards, faster and faster.

“The guards told me to stop and stand still for my own safety. Fatu continued up to me and nuzzled her head into my stomach. I made a pathetic attempt to stroke her head, trying desperately to keep calm. I know it’s corny, but at that moment – with the direct personal contact – I was hooked. I was completely blown away.”

Fatu. Credit: Ian Aitken.

Fatu. Credit: Ian Aitken.

From this moving encounter, Ian produced the award-winning images: a set of four limited edition platinum prints depicting each of the northern white rhinos (Fatu, Suni, Sudan and Najin) at Ol Pejeta.

Speaking of his award, Ian said: “I am so pleased. The prints have already gathered a fair amount of interest in the UK but this will help boost awareness of the northern white rhinos throughout North America.”

The prints, which have been featured on BBC Radio 4’s Saving Species and picked for special interest on the Behance network, are mounted in hand-carved frames made from brown English oak inlaid with slivers of African mpingo wood.

They are being sold to raise funds for a new security unit for the northern white rhinos. For more information about these prints, visit:, or contact [email protected].