Rhino deaths a blow to conservation: agencies

Rangers with one of the rhinos that were relocated to a sanctuary in Tsavo early this month. Eight of them have died in less than a month. [Jeckonia Otieno, Standard]

Wildlife conservationists have termed the death of eight rhinos at Tsavo National Park a drawback to the conservation of the endangered animals.

The eight black rhinos were moved to Tsavo National Park from Nakuru and Nairobi national parks early this month.

The conservationists say the deaths dealt a blow to the populations that were slowly increasing after 35 years of concerted efforts.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has attributed the deaths to salt poisoning through water.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) CEO Mohamed Awer, said in a statement that the organisation was devastated by the news that the translocation, funded in part by the organisation, resulted in the deaths of so many endangered rhinos.

“Trans-locating wild animals of this size is a complex, challenging undertaking and not without risk. However, range expansion projects to increase black rhino numbers are a recognised cornerstone of conservation efforts, meaning translocation is crucial for future generations,” wrote Mr Awer.

He said the organisation would work with KWS to investigate the circumstances surrounding the rhino deaths.

On March this year, WWF announced that the number of black rhinos had doubled - a first in 35 years following heightened conservation.

“The black rhino has suffered a catastrophic 98 per cent decline in Kenya, whose population plummeted from 20,000 in the 1970s to about 350 in 1983. The curve has now turned and the population stands at 750 in 2018,” WWF said

Conservation of black rhinos started in early 1980s when they were confined to protected areas to keep them away from poachers.

According to the International Union for Conservation and Nature, black rhinos are classified as critically endangered, meaning they still face a high risk of extinction in the wild.

Another organisation, Save The Rhino, in a statement termed the death of the eight rhinos as tragic, saying this should inspire more conservation efforts.

“Sadly, eight black rhinos have died following a translocation that hoped to see 14 new animals in Tsavo East National Park. This tragic situation highlights the importance of conserving this species, which has only 5,500 individuals left,” the organisation said.

The number of black rhinos declined sharply in 1980s due to poaching attributed to demand for rhino horn in Asian countries.

“Generally, rhinos are the most intensively monitored animals not only in the country but also globally, from private conservancies to the rhino sanctuaries and national parks in the country, they remain iconic and symbolic animals,” said Samuel Mutisya, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy head of wildlife.

Kenya is among the leading countries in Africa that have managed to bring poaching activities below 1 per cent. This, is attributed to tough anti-poaching and trophy-hunting laws, stringent security in rhino sanctuaries as well as political will.

Rhino population

The country has the third-largest population of rhinos at 1,200, after South Africa and Namibia.

Wildlife Direct described the deaths as a major conservation setback.

“It’s surprising because Kenya Wildlife Service has conducted many successful large scale translocation of rhinos before. Never have we seen such huge losses. 50 per cent of those moved have died!" posted Pauline Kahumbu, the Wildlife Direct CEO.

Ms Kahumbu said the translocation could only be described as a complete disaster and sought reassurances that best practices in wildlife translocation would be adopted in future to prevent more deaths.

“Moving rhinos is complicated and risky, akin to moving gold bullion, it requires extremely careful planning due to the value of these rare animals. I dread to think of the suffering that these poor animals endured before they died. We need to know what went wrong so that it never happens again,” she added.