Extinction in Focus: Matjaž Krivic’s Portraits of the Last Northern White Rhino

Najin, the second-to-last northern white rhino resting on the ground, with her caretaker Zachary Mutai sitting next to her, leaning on her body, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya; photo by Matjaž Krivic.

Matjaž Krivic (51), a documentary photographer from Slovenia, has received many awards throughout his career, but the last title of the Travel Photographer of the Year has recognized something almost literally – one of a kind. The main subject of his photographs might soon live only in memory cards: the northern white rhino.  

It’s a scenario we have seen many times before, from the Javan tiger to the Mauritius dodo. Due to hunting and loss of natural habitat, animal species cannot survive on a planet ruled by humans. The most intelligent animal on Earth is causing the most irrational history of extinction.   

Photographer Matjaž Krivic captured the emotional essence of the bond between the second-to-last northern white rhino and her devoted caretaker

There are only two northern white rhinos left in the world. And both of them are females, Najin and her daughter Fatu. Sadly, the last male, Sudan, died in 2018. Today, the northern white rhino is a functionally extinct species.

Matjaž Krivic traveled to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya, where constantly monitored by her guard Zachary Mutai, the 33-year-old Najin resists the faith of her ancestors.

In “The Last Two” photo series, this talented photographer captured the emotional essence of the bond between the devoted caretaker and the second-to-last representative of the oldest land mammal species in the world. The photographs of this companionship serve as a powerful reminder of the urgency to stop humanity’s reckless destruction of the planet’s wildlife.

Pushed to the brink of extinction by poaching, the population of two northern white rhinos could only be saved by a miracle. That includes the BioRescue breeding program that uses the sperm of dead males to artificially inseminate female eggs, and transfer the embryos to surrogate mothers of another rhino sub-species. If successful, the conservation program could bring the northern white rhino back from extinction. And if that happens, you can bet Matjaž Krivic will be there with his camera to capture the magic of a new northern white rhino baby.

Matjaž Krivic on passion and pleasure of photography

Black-and-white portrait of Slovenian photographer Matjaž Krivic; photo by Miran Juršič.
Matjaž Krivic, through the lens of his colleague Miran Juršič

For more than two decades, you’ve been receiving numerous awards and recognition for photographing extraordinary places, people, and events. The most recent award comes with the title of the travel photographer of the year, but that work doesn‘t expose any typical content tourists associate with traveling. From the Canary Islands, instead of casual beach life you portray the untamable power of the eruption, and from Kenya, instead of the beauty of the world we’re living in, you’re depicting a beauty of the world that’s dying. There is a silent mindfulness behind your motives. Is that a vision of your photography work?   

I search for moments that portray some beauty and emotion, often filled with silence and grandeur. Whether it is a face, a motion, a mountain, a bridge, or a temple.

I have never looked at photography as an industry, but purely as my passion and pleasure. As a professional, it is vital to me to keep the enthusiasm of an amateur. I photograph genuine, pristine moments, never posed or fixed.

Total respect for any individual or group is of the essence. My work is about capturing true and natural beauty.

As a self-taught photographer, how did you end up falling in love with this art form in the first place?

It was not until the first travel that I discovered my love for photography. I was 16 and wanted to see the world. I have discovered that I am surrounded by so much beauty on my travels that I wanted to capture those moments to show them to my friends and family. Soon I realized that my photos are good and I loved taking them, so photography became my passion.

Caretaker Zachary Mutai caressing Najin, one of the last northern white rhinos left in the world after her evening treat, a bunch of carrots; photo by Matjaž Krivic.
Connection of Najin, the northern white rhino at the brink of extinction, and her caretaker Zachary Mutai, through the lens of Matjaž Krivic
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The last remaining northern white rhino

Explain a little about how your “The Last Two” project came about!

The story was actually brought to light by my journalist friend Maja Prijatelj Videmšek. As a journalist for the Slovenian newspaper Delo, she started doing research about close-to-extinct species and wrote an article about the northern white rhinos. Soon we decided along with journalist Boštjan Videmšek that this is the story that needs more attention.

Wars, geography, shrinking of the natural habitat, climate change, the unsustainability of the economic model, (post)colonialism, and wild hunting are woven into the fate of this already functionally extinct species. At the same time, Najin’s story offers a hand of salvation.

BioRescue scientists examining the functionally extinct northern white rhino in hope to resurrect the species; photo by Matjaž Krivic.
Saving Najin: can northern white rhino be resurrected?

What do you mean by that?

The northern white rhinos’ destiny is in the hands of their Kenyan caretakers and a team of scientists at the BioRescue international consortium, which is developing and using several different techniques to resurrect the species, including assisted reproduction and stem cell research.

The plan is to insert northern white rhino embryos into southern white rhino surrogate mothers as soon as possible. There is a real chance the first “new” northern white rhino baby will be born in 2024.

The world's last northern white rhinos were raised by the Czech Dvur Kralove Zoo. Institutions often regarded as controversial animal prisons are becoming crucial actors in conserving the threatened species. Basel Zoo in Switzerland, for instance, is involved in more than 40 breeding programs, including the one for the Indian rhinoceros.

Perceiving danger and respect

Slovenian photographer Matjaž Krivic caressing Najin, one of the last remaining norther white rhinos in the world, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya.
Matjaž Krivic, with his two-of-a-kind model

A typical impression of a rhinoceros is the one of a gigantic animal with thick skin and dangerous horns, yet none of that seemed to protect it. Despite having the largest horns in the rhino world, or actually, because of that very fact, the species of the northern white rhinoceros is functionally extinct, with only two females left. How do you perceive danger when standing so close to this vulnerable giant?

You don’t feel danger. You feel respect. Enormous respect. And you feel humble.

Even with their horns sawn off for their own good, Najin and Fatu still have 24-hour armed protection. Is there a risk that they could still die from human hands?

Currently, there is no fear of that. They’re being protected at all times.

Did you yourself, in all your years of traveling as a photographer, ever end up in a seriously dangerous situation?

Never really. I was arrested once in Rwanda in 1996, as a police officer said I was not allowed to take photos of the market. He requested money so I gave him what he was asking for. But shortly after, other police officers came by, apologized, and gave my money back.

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Rhino whisperer

The hand of the caretaker Zachary Mutai caressing the wrinkled head of Najin, one fo the last two remaining northern white rhinos, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya; photo by Matjaž Krivic.
Protecting the last of her kind

What is your approach to the authenticity of documentary photography? According to you, can there be a certain degree of staging behind it?

In my opinion, staging has no place in documentary photography.

Can you tell more about this in the context of photographing Najin? How much time did you spend there? How hard was it to achieve these fantastic photograph motives?

I was in Ol Pejeta Conservancy twice, for a week. Each day, I was waking up early in the morning, along with Najin & Fatu and their caretaker Zachary, to follow them on their daily routine.

The shadow of the caretaker Zachary Mutai, on the body of the second-to-last northern white rhino, Najin, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya; photo by Matjaž Krivic.
Matjaž Krivic finding beauty in silence and grandeur

Their movement is slow, and so is the day watching them. You can only hear the light breeze, birds, and the sound of them grazing. And Zachary’s whispers, when he’s talking to them.

When you’re spending time in this serene atmosphere, surrounded by these magnificent creatures, it’s not hard to capture their beauty on camera.

What can you tell us about Najin’s relationship with her keeper? Obviously, you portray this connection with a very touching, almost intimate exposure of their togetherness. Do they operate like pets and pet owners?

Their relationship is really beautiful. There’s a certain intimacy between them that is hard to explain. He talks to her and it seems she understands him, she listens to him. I wouldn’t say that it’s like a pet relationship, they’re friends.

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Environmental photographer on the road

Are you an optimist? Do you think that we can indeed have a greener future?

No. We have the technology and know-how, but we’re too greedy.

What was the crucial moment in your career that ignited your interest in themes of environmental protection?

There was no crucial moment, I think. It was more gradual. The more I traveled, the more I witnessed the effects of climate change. I thought the issue needed to be spoken of more.

Slovenian photographer Matjaž Krivic in action behind the camera, taking photos in Tibet.
Matjaž Krivic in action

How does the life of such a travel photographer function in real life? Are there sources that can fund trips that document the ways we damage our home planet?

There are some grants that can help you but have limited capacities. It’s not so easy to get in. Mostly I fund the stories myself and get reimbursed later on by publishing them.

With continuous road trips and world travels, do you reflect on the impact and sustainability of your own traveling? Do you actively work on neutralizing your carbon footprint?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t.

What is the essential equipment you can’t see yourself traveling without?

I use a Canon R5 camera, with lenses RF15-35mm, RF50mm, RF100mm/macro, and RF100-500mm. The essential part of my traveling equipment is also DJI MavicPro 2 drone.

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Climate crisis – balancing pessimism and hope

From the poverty of the gold diggers, the wilderness of urban environments, and similar contradiction-fueled and sometimes saddening concepts, you did arrive at the project that paints more hope in our common future. What do you want to convey with “Plan B”?

That’s a collection of the most promising projects in the fight against the climate crisis.

So, we missed our first shot. Decades of warning signs didn’t cause us to avoid man-made global warming. But all around the globe, there are communities, countries, and companies refusing to resign to the dismal future of an overheated planet.

We have the means to revert climate change, but I’m a pessimistMatjaž Krivic

This is a story of what the transformation to a zero-emission world looks like; the people, the machines, and the landscapes that play a part in the shaping of our common future.

From a Swiss-based company capturing carbon dioxide from thin air, to sea-power developments in the Orkney Islands. From the electric-mobility revolution in Norway to the ITER project in France, where 35 nations are building a miniature Sun on Earth.

This is a monument to those delivering hope and damage control, the ones collecting and creating the knowledge, experience, and technology paving our way out – our plan B.

You did say you lack optimism for a greener future because humans are greedy. On the other hand, you explain “Plan B” through hope. Does that mean that you are not a complete pessimist after all, or do you just want to give your own contribution to the “better side of history”?

There is know-how. We have at our disposal the means to revert the change. But I’m a pessimist, estimating that there will be a lack of political will or that the corporations’ influence will be too powerful to actually implement the changes. Hopefully, I’m wrong though.

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Matjaž Krivic’s home and away

Originating from Slovenia, a tiny European country whose wildlife predators get no more dangerous than human fish, is that the reason you feel the urge to explore what you sometimes call “the distant Earth”?

I can’t really say if me being Slovenian has contributed to my travels (laughter). But since I was young, I was drawn to the outside world and wanted to explore it.

Slovenian travel photographer Matjaž Krivic sitting on the floor next to a bicycle in Tibet.
Matjaž Krivic in harsh, but magical Tibet

What place do you consider your home, and are there special corners of the world where you love to come back in particular?

Well, my home is my home. But the place I always come back to is Tibet. Being at a high altitude means bad headaches, you’re super cold, and the food is awful, but somehow I feel the best.

What is the secret of Tibet then?

Hard to explain. There is something sacred, and magical there. The harsh environment is accompanied by the warmth, kindness, and humility of its people. Being there, you just become at ease with everything, yourself and the surroundings, it’s like you find yourself in a different state of mind.

What’s next on your roadmap?

I’m continuing with the conservation and environmental stories in South Africa, Namibia, Georgia, and Romania.

The cover of the book "The Last Two" by Boštjan Videmšek and Maja Prijatelj Videmšek, with photographs by Matjaž Krivič, about the last remaining northern white rhinos in the world and the fight to save the species.The Last Two - the book

Besides being the name of the photo project, "The Last Two" is also the title of the upcoming book you can pre-order here. 

The authors, Slovenian journalists Boštjan Videmšek and Maja Prijatelj Videmšek, take you on a journey through the history of the northern white rhinos, whose numbers were brought to the brink of extinction due to wars, climate change, poaching and the black market.

They also introduce the people fighting for the future of the species: the rangers, conservationists, and scientists.

Will science prevail, or is it too late?  

The release date of the title is August 15, 2023.

From the reviews

The story of the ravages of humankind's toll on innocent creatures who have fallen prey to poachers, conflict, and climate change, The Last Two is also an inspiring tale of the best of which our species is capable. From the conservationists in Kenya who care for the mother and daughter rhinos, Najin and Fatu, to the scientists in Italy, Germany, and Japan who are racing against time and daunting odds to snatch the rhinos from extinction's terrible grasp. Written with urgency and empathy and illustrated with stirring photos by Matjaž Krivic, The Last Two is at once a chronicle of disaster and hope.

-- Kelly Horan, The Boston Globe

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Najin in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya, is the second-to-last northern white rhino in the world. The Slovenian photographer Matjaž Krivic, who captured the intimate moments between the animal and her caretaker, speaks about his views on environmental photography and future of the planet in interview with Pipeaway.

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Ivan Kralj

Editor

Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

16 Comments
  1. What a wonderful interview. Krivic is such a compassionate and passionate soul. I am sure his photos have touched hearts and at the very least inspired awareness. I live in San Diego, California where the Zoo/Wild Animal Park is working to preserve the threatened Rhinos as well. It’s a noble pursuit wherever in the world it progresses.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Elaine.
      It’s great to hear that you found the interview wonderful and were inspired by Matjaž’s work.
      It’s heartening indeed to know that there are people working hard to preserve the threatened rhinos. That’s really encouraging.
      On the other hand, sadly, there are not enough zoos (or rescue projects) for the incredible number of animals we regularly push into extinction.
      Scientists estimate that more than 150 species of flora and fauna disappear every single day.
      It’s a frightening thought to consider how food chains could break easily and have devastating consequences on the stability of the entire ecosystem.
      That’s not promising the best future for our descendants, as miracles are truly a rare occurrence.
      In any case, thank you for taking the time to read the article and for sharing your perspective!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Darla!
      Yes, the work of BioRescue is truly inspiring and gives hope for the survival of the northern white rhinos.
      I will be sure to keep an eye out for any updates and share them as soon as I come across them.

  2. Thank you Ivan
    This is a wonderful article and I am glad I stumbled on it. It was very informative,also sad to me and I hope and pray for success of keeping this beautiful animal in this world. Thank you to Matjaz for the magnificent photos and his work.
    Gee

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read the article and for your kind words, Gee.
      It is always rewarding to know that our work is appreciated and that it helps to raise awareness about important issues such as the plight of the northern white rhinos.
      Let’s hope that with the efforts of dedicated individuals and organizations, we can ensure the survival of these magnificent animals for generations to come.
      And a big thank you to Matjaž Krivic for his incredible work in documenting their story through his photography!

  3. Ivan, this is my first time seeing your work , such a fine job making the world aware of the plight of the white rhinos.
    It’s very sad , but although I too am like you and a pessimist , I do know that the work your doing will bring many closer to these problems and that is what needs to happen, even if it’s one by one.
    God bless you , God bless these poor plants and animals that have and are disappearing, I just hope there aren’t other forces more powerful than us that control the destiny of this planet.
    But a great article , enjoyed it and all the photos immensely.
    Regards,
    Jeffrey Johnson

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Jeffrey!
      It means a lot to hear that Matjaž Krivic’s work, and Pipeaway’s small contribution, is making an impact and raising awareness about the plight of these magnificent animals.
      It’s important that we do what we can to protect and preserve endangered species like the northern white rhinos, even if it’s just one person at a time.
      And I share your hope that we can overcome the challenges facing our planet and its inhabitants.
      Thank you for reading and for your support!

  4. Why are they scientists messing about with cell and crap they have sperm and eggs why why are they not inseminating or fertilising eggs to put in to these two females mind you that would be to easy they like to play god and do it a way that may never work

    1. Hi, Neil!
      Thanks for your interest in this topic.
      Not trying to be the scientists’ advocate, I did some Google search for you, and I think the closest answer would be that your proposed method would actually be the one of “playing god”, as you say.
      It’s important to remember that the situation is dire, with only two females left in the world.
      They arrived in Kenya as a part of the natural breeding program, which obviously didn’t work out.
      Today, we are where we are.
      At this moment, neither Najin nor Fatu are able to carry a rhino calf to term.
      As a matter of fact, Najin was even retired from the egg-harvesting program altogether, due to ethical reasons.
      While the techniques used today are advanced, they are still not guaranteed miracles.
      It’s not as simple as just fertilizing the remaining females’ eggs and letting Najin and Fatu carry it out by themselves. The animals’ welfare, as well as age and health, have to be taken into consideration.
      With risk assessment, forced pregnancy of any of the two remaining females would practically be experimenting with half of the population of northern white rhinos.
      Therefore, with present obstacles and challenges, the scientists and conservationists are doing their best, and we have to believe they are motivated by the success of the program, which would be – the survival of the northern white rhinos.

  5. Absolutely beautiful and inspiring article! Thank you for educating us about the plight of the Northern White Rhino. We need more articles and more people that care , like this.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Debbie!
      I’m so glad to hear that the article has inspired you and raised awareness about the situation of the northern white rhinos.
      It’s so important to bring attention to these issues and to work towards solutions.
      Let’s continue to spread the word and make a difference together!

  6. I was in the Navy and we did a port visit to Slovenia. I feel in love with the country and the people. I took a cab ride to the city of Bled. Amazingly beautiful city and the Julian Alps. I had a trip planned to go back to visit but Covid hit and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to go. Still want to.

    1. Hi Donna, thank you for sharing your experience in Slovenia!
      It’s always great to hear how people fall in love with new places and cultures.
      I’m sorry to hear that your plans to go back were affected by the pandemic, but I hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit again soon.
      Bled is truly a gem of Slovenia, with its stunning alpine scenery and a magical lake with an island and a castle.
      On your next visit, make sure to visit some of the other natural wonders that Slovenia has to offer, for instance Postojna Cave, and Predjama Castle nearby.
      Keep safe and keep dreaming of your next adventure!

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