East African

How routine rhino trip left nine dead, and world stunned

MONDAY JULY 23 2018
A Kenya Wildife Service translocation team rolls a sedated female black rhinoceros into a safe position. NMG

A Kenya Wildife Service translocation team rolls a sedated female black rhinoceros into a safe position before loading the animal into a transport crate ahead of the ill-fated journey to the Tsavo East sactuary. PHOTO | JAMES KAHONGEH | NMG

By ALLAN OLINGO

Only two out of the 11 black rhinos that were translocated to the Tsavo National Park are alive, denting Kenya’s conservations credentials, especially given that it holds 80 per cent of the sub-species.

On Tuesday, it emerged that a ninth rhino had died in what now becomes the world’s biggest rhino translocation mishap as Kenyan authorities promise in-depth investigations into the tragedy.

The country says it has invited a team of experts from the United Kingdom and South Africa to make a comprehensive report by end of next week, on what really caused the deaths of these animals.

“Preliminary investigations point to salt poisoning as the rhinos tried to adapt to saltier water in their new home. The investigations team is being headed by senior officers from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, local and international experts. A comprehensive reports to be concluded within a week,” Kenya’s Tourism and Wildlife Minister Najib Balala said, after touring the newly established Tsavo East National Park Rhino Sanctuary to get an update on the deaths of the black rhinos.

Something went wrong

On Friday last week, it emerged that eight of the rhinos moved by the Kenya Wildlife Service from the Nairobi National Park and the Nakuru National Park died as a result of drinking saline water.

“Things did not go according to the script. The wildlife agency had taken all the necessary precautions including their quality of water and also housing them in a holding pen as they transitioned to their new ecosystem. Something went wrong and given the effects of the stress of moving, the animals felt thirsty and took saline water that was being pumped from a borehole,” The EastAfrican was reliably told.

It is also understood that two of the rhinos could have lost their lives during or immediately after the move itself, while the other six are said to have died due to salt poisoning, after drinking water with a higher salt content on arrival in Tsavo East rhino conservancy.

Conservationists are now calling for thorough investigations into what could have gone wrong and whether any of the translocation safety measures were sidestepped.

“Finding new places for rhinos to thrive and protecting viable populations are crucial, and we understand the Kenyan Wildlife Service’s desire to re-establish rhinos in Tsavo East. Now that we are faced with this truly tragic situation, we must learn from it. We call on the Kenya Wildlife Service to examine what happened and why things went so wrong. Then steps must be taken to ensure that this never happens again,” Save the Rhino’s chief executive officer Cathy Dean said.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF-Kenya) chief executive officer Mohamed Awer said in a statement that the organisation was devastated by the news.

“Translocating 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,” Mr Awer said in a statement.

According to Save the Rhino, moving rhinos from one place to another is essential to ensure genetic diversity across the population and to re-establish populations in areas where they had previously been poached to near extinction.

“Of course, we must have solid plans for rhino relocations, but we must also understand the impact of where we are moving them, and the overall objective for the entire population. Kenya’s national rhino strategy has a long-term vision of a total black rhino population of 2,000 animals. Reaching this goal will only be possible if the current populations are appropriately managed; rhinos are relocated to specific areas with a good genetic mix that enables each park or conservancy to host a viable breeding population,” the rhino organisation said.

Dr Paula Kahumbu of Wild Life Direct said that the deaths of these animals was shocking, disheartening and was a major conservation tragedy, not just for Kenya but for all rhinos.

Global best practice

“The translocation exercise was meant to support the successful breeding programme of this critically endangered species of black rhino for which Kenya holds 80 per cent of the sub-species. It is surprising because KWS has conducted many successful large scale translocations of rhinos before. We look forward to the outcome of the investigation and reassurances that we will adopt global best practice in translocating wildlife to learn from this disaster and prevent it from ever happening again,” Dr Kahumbu said.

Rhino translocation and immobilisation for various management purposes in Kenya has been a success story with very low mortality rates over the years. In the last twelve years, Kenya has undertaken 149 rhino translocations with only eight deaths recorded.

In the last one year, 74 rhinos have been immobilised for ear notching and only one death was recorded. Several hundreds have also been immobilised for clinical reasons.

According to KWS, on July 2, one of the male rhinos in the boma was observed to be restless, taking in excessive water while lying on its side. Attempts to make it stand proved futile as it showed signs of weakness on its fore limbs.

“A decision was made to move it out of the boma and place it in the shade where supportive treatment, including intravenous fluids, was administered,” KWS said in a statement, adding that the animal died the next day.

The agency said that eight other rhino were also observed the next day to exhibit similar symptoms to the first one, and died between July 5 and 7.

“Preliminary investigations by our teams attributed the deaths to salt poisoning, as a result of taking water of high salinity on arrival at their new environment. These findings are consistent with cases of salt poisoning on other species and were exemplified by the postmortem findings,” KWS said.

Preliminary report

Mr Balala on the other hand has reiterated that action will be taken if it is found that the caregivers of these animals failed in their duties. He also decried the silence that followed after the animals die noting that this was not acceptable.

“We will definitely take action if the preliminary report showed any failure on the part of the vet, transportation officers, feed organisers and caregivers. We are also happy to confirm that the two surviving rhinos are in good health. One was seen in Maungu yesterday and the other was spotted this morning (Tuesday) around the sanctuary that had been set up for them,” Mr Balala said.

The interim post-mortem report is expected on Monday, July 23, given that one of the experts called in, Prof Peter Gathumbi, a senior veterinary pathologist at the University of Nairobi, was at the Tsavo East conservancy on Thursday and Friday last week, where he took the samples. Kenya will also be awaiting the report on the sugarcane feed the animals were fed on later next week.

“Losing nine black rhinos in a translocation is a major tragedy. Relocation of endangered animals carries a lot of risks but loss of more than half of them is highly unusual. We demand a thorough investigation into what exactly transpired and the findings to be made public,” Greenpeace Africa’s executive director, Njeri Kabeberi said.

“The people involved in this exercise should take responsibility. This is another major setback for conservation, happening only a few months after the last remaining male northern white rhino died in March. The KWS and WWF need to learn from this disaster and put in place measures and best practices to prevent this from recurring,” Ms Kabeberi added.