What’s Next For Rhinos in Kenya?

What’s Next For Rhinos in Kenya?

Northern Kenya, March 2018, a requiem for Sudan. He was in death what he had been while living, an enigma. An apt situation has given the circumstances. His death was a harbinger of the end of a species, and no species should start its journey to the sunset quietly. Sudan is said to be last male northern white rhino, a species that has been driven to the brink of extinction majorly by conflict and war. And, as his minders, conservationists and the larger world at large said goodbye with hopes that, no matter how slim the chances, science might help reverse the situation, they had no clue that Sudan’s end was the beginning of a year that promises to be annus horribilis for rhinos in Kenya.

Weeks after Sudan’s death, three rhinos-two adults and a calf- were found dead in Meru National Park. Their horns were missing. In June, an ambitious ill-advised translocation of 11 rhinos ended with all the rhinos dead. It has been described as tragic and unprecedented. Barely had Kenyans gotten an explanation for the 11 rhinos’ deaths than another one was killed in Lake Nakuru National Park. Its horns were, of course, sawed off.

A rhino’s Achilles’ heel is a mound of keratin located at the tip of its head. Keratin that it can live without. We know it as rhino horn. This mound commands a really high price, even going head to head with gold or platinum on the pound. Sometimes, even more. A kilo has sold for up to $65, 000 on the black market. At one point,  Al Jazeera termed it as the most expensive substance in the world. The demand that drives this trade originates from East Asia, with Vietnam being a key player. Africa’s rhinos die so that people in Asia could display their horns as a status symbol, wear them as jewellery or consume them as traditional medicine. And as Africa and partners fight to keep the rhinos alive, the forces of capitalism dictate that prices go higher to motivate supply, and the poachers grow bolder. Not even highly fortified and protected habitats are a deterrence.  

The three rhinos killed at the Meru National Park lived in a sanctuary, so-called for obvious reasons. It is highly protected. By and large, the rhino could be the most monitored animal in Africa. High-level protection is what the governments and conservationists resorted to when rhino numbers hit the lowest. In Kenya, that was in 1983. In 1970, Kenya had 20, 000 black rhinos. This number would, however, plummet by 98% between 1970 and 1983 due to poaching. The gov’t and concerned parties stepped up, and part of that was to set up sanctuaries and move the rhinos there. Because of human growth, wildlife no longer has ranges as wide as they used to. So, governments regularly move animals for various reasons whose bottom line is to get them to a place where they can thrive. And KWS has done this before, successfully.

It was therefore shocking to learn that 11 rhinos had died in the hands of KWS and WWF. Kenya Wildlife Service is a government corporation charged with the management of Kenya’s wildlife. It had partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature to move 11 rhinos from Nairobi and Lake Nakuru National Parks to a newly established sanctuary in Tsavo East National Park. The move was attributed to overpopulation in the two parks which were said to be hindering breeding. Translocations are complex operations that involve immobilizing the animal before moving it to a new location. Immobilizing an animal by putting it to sleep and then reviving it during the move carries risks, and a few animals die during the process. For instance, 149 rhinos were translocated between 2005 and 2017, and of these, there were 8 mortalities. Losing all the animals during the exercise though is possibly unprecedented.

However, beyond the mechanics, it turns out other factors might have been at play that led to this tragic event. Some media reports stated that KWS buckled to pressure from donors to move the animals to a place that was not suited for them. They were not far off. The conservation space is never short of competing interests, which occasionally play out in the public through controversies. It is not hard to see why. Conservation, forestry and the environment are huge sectors which happen to go unnoticed by the larger public. The money in these sectors is a lot, and with all the competing interests, money becomes the big thing, and those with the ability to influence financial decisions hold sway. As a result, sub-sectors in these spaces, like tourism, hunting, extractives and logging which are mostly donor-funded have their own hierarchies, cliques and feuding factions. One of the places this has played out publicly is in the (mis)management of KWS.

Perhaps, KWS’ most glorious moment in the recent past was when Julius Kipng’etich was at its helm. Even then, the corporation was not immune to outside influence. Kipng’etich left citing political interference. He is not the only head of KWS to have cited political interference while quitting. The current body is a shadow of what it was under Kipng’etich. It is underfunded, under-resourced and as prone to external influence as ever. The resultant effect has been lack of credible levels of autonomy in decision making. Some of these decisions, a well-placed source in the government told us, include okaying plans to establish conservancies under lease from KWS in the areas of Tsavo that are adjacent to the SGR in a rush. The deaths of the 11 rhinos are a direct outcome of that. The real outcome though is majorly denting the work the same group has put into rhino conservation in the last 35 years.

Animals thrive when their welfare is taken care of, and KWS has been known to do. KWS has been known for training rangers, sending vets to conservancies and sanctuaries and working with other players to get the best scientific practices in conservation. As a result of these and the efforts of other players, Kenya’s has had uptakes when it comes to conservation. Beyond rhinos, the elephant poaching cases also went down. According to KWS, rhino and elephant poaching have reduced in Kenya in recent years. According to KWS, Kenya currently has around 1200 rhinos, the third highest population in the world. 745 of these are black rhinos, 510 are southern white rhinos and two are northern white rhinos. Kenya’s black rhinos have doubled for the first time in the last 35 years to 750.

“The measures that have been implemented by the government in the past three years have seen elephant poaching decline from 384 cases reported in 2012 to just 96 in 2015.” The Nation quotes the Minister for Environment and Natural resources as saying in 2016.

Also, the world’s key wildlife trophy markets have made some policy and attitude changes that are expected to impact the trade. The demand for rhino horn, for instance, is said to be on the decline, which has affected its price in the price market. The Washington Post quoted a study published by Swara magazine that found that “rhino horn prices had decreased in both China and Vietnam $65,000 per kilogram in 2012-13 to $30,000 to $35,000 per kilogram in 2015”. Al Jazeera’s investigative unit also found that the price in China further declined in the same year to less than $29,000 per kilogram.

It has taken a lot of concerted efforts to get here. It takes a rhino 7 years to mature, and doubling their population is no mean feat. That aside, continuing to keep these numbers safe and thriving is a greater challenge.  There are an estimated 5,500 black rhinos remaining in the world, all of them in Africa. The only two remaining northern white rhinos are also found in Kenya. As scientists work to save the species, it is important that we bear in mind the fact we do not want to get there. Rhinos have been one time lucky, with the remarkable comeback of the one-horned rhino from the brink of extinction. There are hopes that the northern white rhino might pull the same move, although realistically, that is a long shot. If the black rhino gets there, it is critically endangered, we might not be three times lucky. Statistically, we have not been that lucky with rhinos. It is stated that there were probably 100 rhino species in the world. Out of those, only 5 remain, with one of them literally being at the brink of extinction. Moreover, even in these best of times, poaching still happens.

In 2012, 30 rhinos were killed countrywide. The numbers almost doubled in 2013. In 2014, the numbers dropped to 14.  As of 2016, poaching incidences are said to be on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa. This time, the poachers are even more sophisticated. Adult rhinos have no known predators in the wild. Thus, humans remain the biggest threat to rhinos. However, at the numbers we have for some of the rhinos, the dynamics become a bit different. The black rhino is critically endangered, which means that they can be decimated even by diseases. It will take more, and we are not sure how they will fair in the face of the ever-evolving challenges, including circumstances like the current wildlife and conservation act being discussed in Kenya, to ensure rhinos continue to thrive.

To learn more about rhinos and conservation, Turnup.Travel is heading to one of the best managed and innovative conservancies in Kenya, Olpejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County to explore with Renault.

On the weekend of 25-26 August, Turnup.Travel, your favourite travel family, will take over Ol Pejeta in a road trip with Renault and a camping experience on the shores of River Ewaso Nyiro that will satiate your thirst for adventure and pump your adrenaline. Among the activities for the two-day experience are: Visit of Baraka the blind rhino, visit of Sudan’s gravesite, visit of the Chimpanzee sanctuary, day & night game drives, lion and dog tracking!

Don’t miss out, grab your slot now. Accommodation at Sportman Arms in Nanyuki, four meals (Lunch, Dinner, Breakfast, Lunch), transfers and game drives and conservancy entrance fees included

What you need to bring:

– ID / Passport
– Phone & phone charger / power bank
– Personal hygiene items
– Good vibes

Ksh 8500 per person
Till Number 741 321

Talk to us:
0724 215 977 / 0705 367 469


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