More black rhino sanctuaries to be created to curb fights for territory

Black rhinos at Lewa Conservancy. [David Gichuru, Standard]

More rhino sanctuaries are to be created in Laikipia and Tsavo to ease congestion and prevent deaths resulting from territorial fights.

The sanctuaries will create space to host 1,000 more black rhinos as the country races to achieve a target of 2,000.

Rhino populations in six sanctuaries, Ngulia, Nairobi, Lake Nakuru, Solio, Ol Pejeta and Lewa are beyond optimum carrying capacity. This means that the sanctuaries no longer have space for more black rhinos.

“Currently, rhino populations in the six sanctuaries are managed at Carrying Capacity. This is further compounded by impacts of climate change leading to frequent and prolonged droughts,” Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Director General Erastus Kanga said.

By the end of last year, the black and white rhino populations stood at 1,890, comprising 966 black rhinos, 922 southern white rhinos, and two northern white rhinos.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy has the highest rhino population, with 166 black rhinos. Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary has a population of 134 black rhinos, Lewa- Borana landscape has 133, Nairobi National Park has 98 and Lake Nakuru National Park hosts 89 black rhinos.

The carrying capacity of a rhino sanctuary is not often determined by the availability of food or suitability, it is determined by the security provision, which is critical in keeping them below a threshold where rhinos do not disperse into unsecure areas.

Data shows Ol Pejeta Conservancy hosts black rhinos in excess of 76, while Nairobi National Park has a surplus of 54, Nakuru National Park 39, Lewa 41, and Ol Jogi Ranch 10. However, data also reveals that some sanctuaries can accommodate more black rhinos.

Being territorial animals, black rhinos often fight to control their spaces, and according to stakeholders, black rhinos are now more likely to die from territorial fights than from poaching due to congestion within the rhino sanctuaries.

“The action plan launched today is geared towards securing additional space in the next five years to sustain the growth rates and minimise mortalities from other causes, especially territorial fights, which remain high, accounting for a third of rhino mortalities,” Dr Kanga said during the launch of the seventh edition of the recovery plan.

Rhinos at the Nairobi National Park, May 10, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Dr Kanga said there was an urgent need to create more space to move the rhinos to avoid deaths resulting from territorial fights, a challenge worsened by the frequent and prolonged droughts, factors linked to climate change.

The creation of new sanctuaries is a move by the government to also boost its conservation targets beyond the successful conservation of the species over the past years.

While Kenya is one of the key global leaders in the conservation of rhinos, like all its fellow African rhino range states, Kenya continues to face a serious poaching threat.

Although rhino numbers have continued to increase, surpassing the targeted 5 per cent growth annually, the poaching threat remains. Between 2012 and 2016, 5,703 black and white rhinos were reported poached in sub-Saharan Africa, with Kenya losing 145 animals during the same period.

“Implementation of the past six editions of the action plan has enhanced the recovery of the black rhino populations to more than double from the population of fewer than 400 individuals by 1989 to an estimated population of 1,890 rhinos (966 black, 922 white and two northern white rhinos) by end of 2022,” Wildlife and Tourism Cabinet Secretary Peninah Malonza said.

Black rhinos are classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, meaning they risk being extinct in the wild. Black rhinos are critically endangered also because they face immense challenges from poaching and the loss of their habitat.

The newly launched five-year recovery plan for black rhinos is set to address the challenges being experienced in rhino conservation, including poaching, overstocking in sanctuaries, habitat degradation and conversion, climate change, disease, predation, and potential inbreeding depression.

In the new Recovery and Action Plan for the Black Rhino in Kenya (2022-2026), the country is set to achieve a major milestone of 1,000 black rhinos.

In the Tsavo area, the plan seeks to operationalise some areas to support large populations of black rhinos, while in Laikipia, the plan is to merge the private and community sanctuaries that are near create black rhino sanctuaries.

Nature Conservancy Kenya Programme Director Munira Bashir said for Kenya’s rhino population to thrive, they need space, and there is a need to build a population size of 2,000 individuals.

“Kenya is world-renowned for its conservation efforts. The remarkable turnaround in the conservation of rhinos has been driven by government coupled with local and international efforts,” Bashir said.

Feasibility assessments carried out by KWS in Loisaba Conservancy in Laikipia noted that the site is ideal for a rhino sanctuary. The government has also given conditional approval to relocate rhinos to Loisaba.

Loisaba Conservancy CEO Tom Silvester said that following an in-depth ecological assessment with the KWS, a 26,000-acre sanctuary has been created in Loisaba Conservancy.

“Loisaba welcomes this exciting announcement, which demonstrates the success of rhino conservation in Kenya over the last 40 years. We are so happy to be part of the journey. We have a fence and deploy necessary security technologies. Each rhino will be tracked,” Silvester said.