Nairobi — The cost of keeping one black rhino safe for a year is approximately $5,000 – a significant amount. Yet Kenya’s black rhinos are flourishing and each year we need to find safe homes for up to 40 of them.
What a contrast to the global reports of doom and gloom for the various endangered species.But to place this in context, these are still insignificant numbers. In the 1960s, Kenya was home to over 20,000 — at a time when the colonial government ordered the eradication of over 1,000 rhino in Makueni to clear land for agriculture.
The foundation of this success is embedded in the Kenya Wildlife Service’s Black Rhino Programme, recognised across Africa as a standard setter for rhino conservation. The programme was established in 1985 to rescue the rhino from being driven to extinction by the ever-increasing prices of their horn.
This was occasioned by rising demand in the Far East to supply the traditional Chinese medicine market, based on the deep-rooted belief that tiny amounts of ground-up rhino horn can save a life.
Accepting that even the poorest person will spend their last cent to save the life of a family member, this market is likely to remain entrenched within this society for the foreseeable future.
As custodians of Kenya’s black rhino, the challenge of finding new and safe habitats together with financing to take care of these rhino rests firmly with the Kenya Wildlife Service, who through their Five-Year Black Rhino Strategy have identified that communities and the private sector will have key roles to play alongside a more regional approach incorporating other East African countries.
Currently, over 50 per cent of Kenya’s black rhino reside on private land and their security is paid for through tourism revenues and conservation funding focused on endangered species.
With the success of community conservancies now expanding throughout Kenya, together with the country’s policy of promoting community-based conservation, this opens a new window for more safe space for the rhino while giving communities a unique tourist product.
With tourism revenues for community conservancies in Kenya now reaching previously inconceivable levels there is an ever-increasing demand within pastoral communities for proactive development linked to conservation.
It is, however, unrealistic to expect the safety of the rhino to be completely covered by tourism dollars and this is where the partnerships with the government and international conservation bodies come into play.
In contrast to Kenya’s success, Uganda currently has no black rhinos, its populations having been poached to extinction over 20 years ago. Tanzania has less than one third of Kenya’s total numbers.
In Tanzania, plans are currently at an advanced stage for the purchase at a cost of several million dollars of over 30 black rhinos from a private sanctuary in South Africa to be released in the Serengeti.
These animals originated in East Africa but were exported in the 1960s before Kenya implemented a ban on the export of wild animals.
This raises the question of why there is not a more regional approach to rhino conservation in East Africa, especially when some of the free ranging populations of rhino reside in border areas, criss-crossing between the two countries at will.
Part of the answer lies in the historical tensions between Kenya and Tanzania, fuelled further by the recent standoff at Cites over the proposed sale of the latter’s ivory.
There are clear lessons in conserving rhinos to be learned from Kenya that are relevant to both Uganda and Tanzania, arguably the most important being the strength of a broad-based approach to conservation, recognising communities and the private sector as key players in paying for conservation yet encouraging the financial benefits in return to be funnelled directly into community hands instead of through the government.
Unlike ivory, which is a luxury item attracting a more educated market where an international ban can have a positive effect on the demand and subsequent values, the demand for rhino horn stems from a much broader based and poorer level of society and hence a ban on the trade is far harder to implement; nor is it easy to influence either the demand or the price. Consequently, the current threat to the rhino will remain for the foreseeable future, potentially even increase.
If black rhino populations are to continue to increase and thrive in East Africa there are some fundamental issues to address.
In Kenya, this requires a strong emphasis on diversifying risk and spreading the responsibilities. This means intensive protection zones within the protected areas and fenced sanctuaries within community and private lands.
At a regional level, it requires a close working relationship between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda revolving around sharing the asset of Kenya’s black rhino population and the expertise to manage them.
This combination will be the best possible insurance to make sure that they survive and flourish and that our grandchildren see free ranging wild black rhino.
Ian Craig, a lifetime conservationist, is the Northern Rangelands Trust’s chief executive officer