The recent deaths of 10 black rhinos have been blamed on the former board of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala yesterday claimed that former KWS board chairman Richard Leakey had weakened the systems at the organisation, leading to the animals' deaths after their translocation to a sanctuary in Tsavo East National Park.
Mr Balala claimed before members of the National Assembly’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee that Dr Leakey conspired with some KWS staff to sabotage the relocation so as to paint the organisation and the ministry in bad light.
According to the Tourism CS, the bad blood between him and the veteran conservationist started after he declined to lobby for Leakey's re-appointment as KWS board chairman when the expired in April.
“Top KWS officials were held hostage by the former board, which resulted in the current disorganisation. The ex-chair (Dr Leakey) presided over the systematic weakening of the service, which is the cause of the current issue we are having,” Balala said.
He told the committee that conservation officers failed to properly inspect the rhinos' new surroundings in Tsavo East Park, noting that the endangered animals died of salt poisoning after drinking highly saline water and contracting infections.
“The KWS director general was under pressure to conduct the translocation process. The salinity level in the water the rhinos drank was 400 times higher than what is optimal, and no animal could survive,” he said.
Last week, Leakey blamed the deaths of the rhinos on "lack of informed decisions by a functional board". He noted that the previous board's term ended on April 17 but a new one had yet to be formed.
"Without the board, there was no one to oversight the translocation of the rhinos,” said Leakey in a press statement, adding that during his tenure, the board had averted a similar tragedy on three occasions when faced with environmental conditions that were unfavourable to rhinos.
Yesterday, Balala fought assertions by some committee members that he should be held accountable for the deaths, saying he was only called to launch the translocation exercise and was not involved in the actual moving process.
MPs Hilary Kosgei (Kipkelion West), Charity Chepkwony (Molo) and Rose Buyu (Kisumu) said there was no way the CS could escape responsibility, emphasising that the KWS falls under his docket.
“Even a layman knows that during the translocation, the animals were going to be dehydrated hence needed water. As a CS you should have checked the kind of water available for them,” Mr Kosgei said.
Defending himself, Balala pointed out that he did not have the technical capacity to determine the salinity of water safe for the rhinos, and the conditions in the park. He instead directed the blame to conservation officers for failing to offer proper advice.
Kareke Mbiuki, the chairman of the committee, said Leakey would be invited to shed light on the claims made by the CS, adding that six senior KWS officers who were in charge of the relocation before they were suspended by Balala would be questioned.
Separately, Balala has appointed a new KWS board of trustees.
In a Gazette notice dated July 31, Balala appointed Jochen Zeitz, the owner of Segera Ranch in Laikipia, Ian Craig, a former owner of Lewa Conservancy and Northern Rangelands Trust director of conservancies, Betty Maitoyo and Fred Omondi Ojiambo.
The CS noted that the new board would serve for three years starting July 30.