Kenya: Finding a home for the rhino away from poachers

by May 18, 2012Conservation Threats, Rhino Poaching, Rhinos

Despite increasing numbers in scattered populations, it is still a tough fight to save this mega-herbivore.

The Nairobi National Park is famed for being the only wilderness park in the world bordering a capital city that can boast free ranging lions as neighbours. Yet few know that the national park is also a vital sanctuary to conserve one of the most endangered mega-herbivores on the planet — the black rhino and the white rhino.

Today, there are fewer than 5,000 black rhinos on a planet of seven billion people. It is heartening news for the 2010 African rhino census reveals that in 15 years, the populations of both the white rhino and the black rhino have doubled in the wild. Officials shy away from making the exact figures public — the better not to encourage poachers.

In the 1970s, the black rhino population in Kenya stood at 20,000. By 1987, after the poaching era, the population had dwindled to 380. Prior to that, at the turn of the 20th century, there were 100,000 black rhinos. Yet the black rhino is only one of the four African species remaining. The northern white rhino of East and Central Africa, a subspecies of white rhino, is presumed extinct, while the western black rhino of West Africa was declared officially extinct in 2009.

Less space – fewer rhinos

The carrying capacity of the 117-square-kilometre Nairobi National Park for the indigenous black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) is 60.

Land from the park earmarked for excision for the Southern Bypass raises fresh concerns about the space available for the rhino.

“If the park is chopped,” said Dr Ben Okita-Ouma, Kenya Wildlife Service senior scientist and deputy chair of the IUCN-African Rhino Specialist Group, “it reduces the acreage for conserving rhinos.”

The park excision is merely the latest threat to conserving rhinos.

The biggest threat has been poaching for its horn, whose properties are as useless as the human hair or fingernail. Yet a fresh wave of demand from Vietnam and China has seen an upsurge in demand and hence poaching. A senior official in Vietnam is reported to have said that he was cured of cancer after taking rhino horn medicine. The cure has, needless to say, not been medically documented, but people will do anything to save themselves from life-threatening diseases.

Rhino horn is also touted as an aphrodisiac in the Far East. In Middle Eastern countries, especially Yemen, rhino-horn daggers inlaid with gemstones are a status-symbol.

Saving Kenya’s rhino

After a few years’ respite from rhino poaching that saw the population increase in Kenya, there’s a fresh wave of this trade.

“The 2012 census shows that in South Africa, 1.6 rhino were poached every day,” reveals Dr Okita-Ouma.

Kenya seems to have fared better with more than two per cent of the rhino population poached per annum between 2009 and 2011.

However, since the beginning of 2012, similar trends are reported in Kenya.

“With poaching, the potential for the rhino to reproduce is lost,” continues the rhino researcher. Statistics show that 70 per cent of poaching was on private land hosting rhino sanctuaries, while 30 per cent were poached from state lands (national parks) and county councils.

The poaching saw the closure of four prime rhino sanctuaries on private land in Kenya — Laikipia Nature Conservancy, Muigie Ranch, and one each in Mount Kenya and in Kitale. The landowners could no longer afford the escalating cost of security, which inolvers investing in an exclusive 24-hour rhino surveillance team made up of rhino rangers and tracking equipment, fitting transmitters on the rhinos for monitoring and ear-notching them for identification.

After the closure of the four sanctuaries, the rhinos were translocated to the little visited Ruma National Park in western Kenya, which is also home to a small population of the endangered Rothschild giraffe and the rare roan antelope.

Space is an important dimension for rhinos are extremely territorial, marking their territory with dung or spraying the boundaries with urine. It makes hunting the myopic animal easy work for poachers.

“The dilemma is where to take the rhinos,” said Dr Okita-Ouma.

Rhinos need space and a habitat that has the correct plants for them to browse on (for the black rhino) or graze (for the white rhino), besides the climatic conditions.

“An animal that dies of hunger or lack of space, is as good as an animal poached,” said Dr Ouma-Okita.

Besides, rhinos don’t make good hosts and will fight intruders on their territory to the death. In Kruger National Park, territorial fights between elephants and rhinos have resulted in several deaths.

A strategy that will be launched soon — Conservation and Management Strategy for Black Rhino in Kenya 2012-2016 — focuses on growing the Kenyan population of black rhino by five per cent per annum. By 2016, if all goes as planned, the black rhino population will be approaching 1,000.

All rhinos will have a DNA profile that will help to trace rhino horns to the country of origin, which will help in fighting the international trade in rhino horn. Fighting poaching requires international partners — Kenya is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Animals and Plants (CITES). For COP 15 (the last CITES meeting), Kenya proposed amendments to a CITES resolution of rhinoceros to obligate countries implicated in the rhino horn trade to report at every CITES meeting what they are doing to stop the trade. The proposed amendments were unanimously agreed upon by CITES parties.

Closer home, 4,000 square kilometres of the 7,065-square-kilometre Tsavo West National Park has since 2008 become an Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) primarily for its black rhino population. It’s an expansion of the 92-square-kilometre Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary. A specially trained rhino unit conducts daily aerial and foot patrols for physical identification.

“Due to the birth increase inside the sanctuary, there is not enough space for the increased population, which has led to a lack of forage.

“Beyond the carrying capacity, rhinos from the sanctuary are translocated in the IPZ. All the rhino in the IPZ are ear-notched and fitted with transmitters in their horns,” said Collins Omondi, the senior warden of Tsavo West National Park.

Three rhinos have been reported poached since 1998 — one in 1998, one in 2011 and one in 2012, the last two corresponding to the new onslaught of poaching continent-wide.

“Two more IPZs in Tsavo East and the Aberdares are being opened,” added Karanja Edward Njuguna, the warden-in-charge of the IPZ in Tsavo West, whose docket includes the daily aerial patrol of the two Tsavos.

“These are historically ranges of the black rhino. The rhino sanctuaries will serve as the breeding grounds for rhinos to be translocated into the protected zones.”

“The rhino is one of the Big Five,” says Dr Okita-Ouma. “The tourist wants to see it besides the lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant.”

So, the rhino brings in the tourist dollar. If the rhino becomes extinct, it will lessen Africa’s tourism potential as a haven or the Big Five. It is the only continent that can boast that — for now.