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It’s a full moon, let’s count the rhinos

Updated Thu, July 29th 2010 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Philip Mwakio

In conservation circles, black rhinos are guarded like Heads of State, with round-the-clock security. And this week, the Kenya Wildlife Service conducted its annual census just to be sure their numbers are as accurate as estimated.

So in the dead of night, armed with binoculars, cameras and long-range spotlights, KWS personnel undertook aerial surveillance that lasted from 6pm to 6am.

Black rhinos are top on International World Conservation Union (IUCN’s) list of endangered animals.

KWS rangers sedate a black rhino before tagging its ear as part of census. The Ngulia sanctuary, with a rhino population of 60, is unique to Kenya. [PHOTOS: STANDARD/FILE]

In China, rhino horns are believed to possess medicinal value, while in the Middle East, they are considered a mark of nobility, at least from the knives worn by men of status there.

Conservationists maintain that the horns have no known value and poachers hunting rhinos are only motivated by greed.

Thrilling Spectacle

Taking a rhino census at the Ngulia rhino sanctuary deep in the sprawling Tsavo West National Park was a thrilling, adrenalin-filled spectacle. It also provided insights into conservation efforts that have led to rhinos’ growing numbers.

The Ngulia sanctuary, the first of its kind in Africa, is situated about 40 kilometres off the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway, on the border between Coast and Eastern province.

According to KWS warden in charge of the sanctuary, Shannon Dumo, it was put up in 1986 to prevent poachers from killing black rhinos for their valuable horns. The sanctuary is below the Ndawo escarpment and the Ngulia Hills. Over the years, Ngulia rhino population has remained steady, with the current numbers standing at 60.

"This sanctuary is part of an ambitious KWS plan to establish a viable black rhino breeding population to enhance rapid breeding to restock other rhino sanctuaries in Kenya," Dumo told The Standard.

Intensive Strategies

According to Ngulia sanctuary rhino programme co-ordinator Benson Okita, KWS has put in place strategies to intensively develop and manage rhinos within other small sanctuaries.

"Population dynamics can be closely monitored and in-breeding prevented," Okita explained. Further, he said, KWS has embraced ear-tagging system, where each rhino has a unique ear identification pattern.

Full Moon

The rhino census is conducted annually during the dry seasons, usually in the months of July, August, September and October.

Unlike other wildlife census exercises, rhino census is carried out at night during full moon.

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