Photographer Justin Mott remembers how he felt the first time he entered the northern white rhino reserve, where the last two rhinos of the species live.
“It just hit me that I was getting back into doing the work that I’m passionate about — work that has meaning to my soul.” For Mott, the experience of photographing the last of an entire species was revelatory.
In his newest photo series, “No Man’s Land,” Mott captures the last two surviving northern white rhinos, Fatu and Najin — both female — and those working on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where the rhinos live.
In one particularly poignant photo, one of the primary rhino caretakers Peter Esegon, 47, reaches down to touch Najin's forehead, showing the strong connection between these animals and their keepers. This photo and more are now on display at the Anastasia Photo gallery in New York City's Lower East Side neighborhood.
The series is the first of a greater project, “Kindred Guardians,” which features people who devote their lives to helping animals. In “No Man’s Land,” Mott showcases those responsible for overseeing the remaining days of an entire species. Mott intended for the photo project to be as much about humans as it is about the animals they serve.
“I want people to celebrate the tenderness, bravery and dedication of the caretakers," Mott said.
The series stands as a sort of redemption for Mott, who previously shied away from covering animal cruelty stories after visiting a slaughterhouse in Vietnam.
Mott explains, “I knew I had to get back to doing stories that mattered to me and I was slowly starting to open myself up emotionally to learning about animal cruelty…I’m an impulsive person and I had heard about the last two remaining northern white rhinos so I did a little bit of research, secured access and booked my tickets to Kenya to start this project.”
Due to rampant poaching, three out of the five rhino species are critically endangered. The remaining two species are marked as vulnerable by the WWF.
The death of the last northern white rhino male, Sudan, in March of 2018 signaled the end of the subspecies. Many attempts were made to mate Sudan, but all were unsuccessful. A lack of funds to develop the necessary in vitro fertilization technology dashed all hopes for the future of the northern white rhino.
Mott has had his own run-ins with rhino poaching during his time working on an editorial assignment as an undercover buyer. Comparing the experience of holding a severed rhino tusk to touching the horn of Najin was an impactful moment for him. “I was sad and happy at the same time — sad about their plight but happy to see a rhino in person and feel it alive.”
Mott hopes to conjure similarly strong emotions from his viewers. Ultimately, Mott wants people to find sympathy for another species, one that has been pushed to extinction by humans.
“I wish my images can humanize them [the rhinos] in a way that we can all relate to and encourage people to act, speak out and change their ways and actions towards animals.”