Today we’re taking you to Kenya via the eclectic and artsy hill country town of Wimberley, Texas, to share the story of a photographer’s journey through music venues and the depths of oceans to the great continent of Africa, and the rise of a small Texas town as a champion (and namesake) of a southern white rhino.
But before we talk rhinos, we must talk elephants. It’s too good of a story to pass up.
In November 2019, award-winning photographer and long-time Wimberley resident Rodney Bursiel made his way to Kenya to capture the majestic elephants of the land. With only about two dozen of the “Big Tuskers” remaining, each are named, tracked, and closely studied. Inspired by photographers like Nick Brandt, Rodney arrived in Amboseli National Park with high hopes of photographing two of the famed large-tusk elephants: Craig and Big Tim.
As luck would have it, Rodney came face to face with Craig, “I was enamored and downright giddy by the opportunity to get so close to this magnificent being!” A few hours later, Rodney would get word that Tim was about an hour away from his current location, but his day had already been long and was quickly losing light, so he decided to head out before daybreak the next morning to pursue him.
Despite a 4 am departure, Rodney was too late. Tim had ventured off into an off-limits area of the park. Rodney never found Tim on this journey, and sadly a few months later in February 2020, Tim died of natural causes. This was a crushing loss to conservationists who expected Tim to live another 10 years, and a lost opportunity for a photographer hoping for a second chance with Tim.
Fast forward to August 2021, a ‘next’ trip to Africa in the works, and more elephants on the agenda, Rodney learned about Najin and Fatu, the very last northern white rhinos on the planet. The LA-ST two! “You want to do something to help. Be a part of it!” said Rodney. Trip plans were scratched, new ones created. “Remember Tim!” Time seemed to be of the essence.
Through a fortunate series of introductions, Rodney connected with James Mwenda, Grand Ambassador and former Ranger for Ol Pejeta Conservancy who knows these nearly extinct rhinos intimately, having protected and cared for them 24/7 for seven years. And this time, success! Meet Najin and Fatu, through the lens of Rodney Bursiel.
Last September, freshly returned to Wimberley from this once in a lifetime experience, Rodney wanted to share his experiences through an immersive and philanthropic experience in his hometown. He and his partner brought together the people of Wimberley for an enchanting evening with entertainment by a Masai tribal dance group, an authentic menu prepared by Kenyan Chef Njathi Kabui and, of course, a conversation with Rodney and James Mwenda. Rodney unveiled his latest photographs of beloved Africa and together he and James wove the tale of Najin and Fatu to help raise awareness about the plights of these animals for a new budding community of wildlife conservationists.
Surely it’s not surprising to learn that protecting large game in Africa is a never-ending endeavor, poachers are relentless and of course nature takes unexpected tolls, too, as in the case of Tim. A vast community exists to protect and conserve these animals. Photographers play an important role in making the animals real, instead of the stuff of childhood imaginations and stories, as well as bringing them to the forefront of media and philanthropy.
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy chose to thank Wimberley for its financial support by naming its 15-month-old southern white rhino—the closest relative to Najin and Fatu—Wimberley. The Conservancy’s choice was very intentional. White rhinos are more docile and less skittish than the black rhino, making it easier for photographers like Rodney to return and continue to support the very survival of a species through photos, stories, and, most importantly, the sharing of knowledge globally.
What’s next for Rodney? “The rhinos will always be near to my heart. The more I experience, the more I learn, the more I want to help raise awareness. I will continue my work with Ol Pejeta Conservancy and expand my efforts with other existing conservation outlets.”
Interested in learning more and supporting rhino conservation and efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade? Visit the Ol Pejeta Conservancy at www.olpejetaconservancy.org.
To view more of Rodney’s work, visit rodneybursielphotography.com. If you’re local to or visiting Wimberley, his photography will be featured in a few upcoming gallery events, including Art on 12 (Wimberley), opened May 14; A. Smith Gallery (Johnston City, TX), throughout August; and The Wimberley Inn, a one-night only installation in November.
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