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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
The exercise is undertaken by trained KWS rangers and volunteers who pitch tent throughout the night at artificial watering holes within the sanctuary.
Safety bunkers are built next to the watering holes where rhino trackers wait, armed with binoculars and cameras track the rhinos as they arrive to drink water.
Due to the thick vegetation that is synonymous with the Tsavo ecosystem, rhino census is ideal at night. The exercise is conducted from 6.00 pm to 6.00am.
"Normal patrols within the sanctuary cannot give accurate counts, hence the use of ear notching patterns," Okita added.
Trackers are warned not to stand in the direction of the wind to avoid de detection by rhinos as they are very aggressive.
The animals have a high sense of smell and can detect a human beings smell from a distance.
The KWS rangers on foot patrol are always armed and backed by aerial surveillance on the 92 sq km area for any signs of trouble.
Two jumbo translocations were conducted to decongest Ngulia sanctuary in 2007 and 2009. Buffaloes were also targeted for translocation.
They were moved to the much larger and equally guarded Intensive Protection Zones (IPZ) adjacent to the sanctuary, which still hosts two family units of elephants, several giraffes, zebras, impalas, resident leopard, lion and small game like dik diks.
Elephants are other large mammals under threat of extinction. This month’s interception of two tonnes of ivory in Vietnam (from Kenya and destined for China), demonstrates the challenge ahead.
The lifting of ivory trade in Southern Africa has not helped matters.