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Kenya’s Worst Rhino Massacre Was the Work of People Trying to Save the Species

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 10/13/2018 By Margot Kiser
a blurry photo of an animal: Tom Stoddart Archive via Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Tom Stoddart Archive via Getty

NAIROBI—You may have missed World Rhino Day last month. Even here in Kenya, many people did. Such events rarely raise the public’s consciousness the way they should, and this year, certainly, there was not much to celebrate.

Kenya is home to many of the rhinos surviving in the wild, but it is still reeling from a veritable massacre in  July and August at one of the country's most famous national parks: 11 eastern black rhinos dead out of a population of 750. And those responsible for the shocking deaths are not poachers, but the very same organizations charged with saving the species: World Wildlife Fund-Kenya, Kenya Wildlife Service, and Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

The tragedy began on July 13, when Kenyans woke to the news that at least seven black rhinos had died mysteriously, not killed by hunters. The death toll reached 11 in less than six weeks. All had lost their lives in the same sanctuary, where they had been relocated, precisely, in order to ensure the species’ survival.

Some conservationists called this the worst tragedy in the history of wildlife conservation.

Paula Kahumba, CEO of the non-profit organization Wildlife Direct, told reporters this was “a complete disaster.” Many people might think of the loss as incalculable, but for those less sensitive to the fate of wildlife, Kahumba put a figure on it: “Each animal is worth about a million dollars. It’s like $7 million just vanished into thin air.”

In the 1950s Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park was home to an estimated 2,000 eastern black rhino. By the 1970s, this population had dwindled, almost entirely as a result of poaching for the international rhino-horn trade, to an estimated 400.

As of early 2018, due to anti-poaching efforts and to conservationists’ work to grow viable rhino populations, the World Wildlife Fund counted the population at 750. The new Rhino Conservation Strategy (2017-2021) of the Kenya Wildlife Service hopes to achieve 5 percent growth and attain a population of 830 by 2021. The mandate of almost all rhino-centric conservation organizations—state or non-state—is keep those numbers growing.

Given that the numbers are so low to begin with, it might seem hard to imagine that there are places in this country with too many rhinos.  But establishing new populations in less densely populated areas is central to programs meant to reduce the risk of extinction. On its website, World Wildlife Fund–Kenya, often known as WWF-K or WWF-Kenya, says it wants “to spur breeding of black rhinos through securing new and safe habitats and minimizing loss,” because “experts agree that the number of rhinos in sanctuaries must be kept below carrying capacity by removing surplus rhino.”

When Kenya’s parks get congested,  animals are sent to other areas in a process known as translocation. They are captured, transported, and released.

Nairobi National Park, in sight of the capital’s skyline, has proved to be a prime rhino breeding sanctuary in Kenya. Rhino reproduce there at an optimum rate, producing one calf per female every two years. But the Nairobi park can no longer sustain the growing population, and neither can the Lake Nakuru National Park, which has a similarly successful breeding record.

Another aim of translocations is to move endangered wildlife away from poachers, but the core purpose is to get them far away enough from other rhino populations to establish, over time, new bloodlines and genetically diverse populations.

The balance has to be just right. If there are too many animals in a confined area they either don’t mate or become inbred. If there are too few in a vast park they may not find each other to mate.

In 2011 WWF-Kenya teamed up with the Kenya Wildlife Service to establish a rhino sanctuary in Tsavo East. The service had a proven track record. It had successfully moved 149 rhino between 2005 and 2017. Only eight of these died, and over a long period of time.

Moving rhino to establish a founder population in the 5,307-square-mile Tsavo East seemed like a good idea. It’s big sky country, with a lot of room for the beasts to move around. But rhinos, while they may look like four-legged battle tanks, are in some respects remarkably fragile, and water quality is, for them, a critical issue.

In 2011 an Environmental Impact Assessment was conducted in the Tsavo East sanctuary to determine the suitability of this habitat, especially its water and vegetation. The result showed high levels of salt in the water.

So, between 2013 and 2015, with funding from WWF-Kenya, the wildlife service hired a private supplier to drill for fresh water in the proposed sanctuary. WWF-Kenya then brought the $1 million proposal for a translocation to the Kenya Wildlife Service board, at the time chaired by renowned paleontologist and wildlife warrior Dr. Richard Leakey.

Leakey vetoed the project three times, on the grounds that Tsavo East had suffered a long drought and the habitat was unsuitable—its water had tested too salty for rhino consumption. Leakey recommended that WWF-Kenya return with the proposal when conditions improved.  

Despite the high salinity of the water WWF-Kenya went ahead and continued building the sanctuary, with a 38-square-mile rhino territory enclosed by a solar-powered electric fence. Within the sanctuary WWF-Kenya established a boma (a more localized holding enclosure), where vets and rangers would look after translocated rhino for two weeks before releasing them into free range.

Paul Gathitu, a spokesperson for the Kenya Wildlife Service, says a lot of planning was done to ensure the rhinos’ safety in their new habitat. “There has to be sufficient food, it has to be correct in terms of weather, in terms of water that is available, so all those factors had to be put in place including even the issue of security of the rhinos themselves. All that put together, we felt that the conditions were about right.”

But the 2011 assessment showing high salinity was never revised. Moreover, Dr. Benson Kibore, chairman of Kenya’s Union of Veterinary Practitioners (UVP), said tests of the water in drilled boreholes were conducted multiple times, up to May of 2018, and these tests revealed a saline content five times higher than in 2011.

In April of 2018, the three-year tenure of the KWS board of directors, including Leakey, terminated. Soon afterward WWF-Kenya’s preparations for the translocation were set in motion. TheBigMove, as it was billed, would be a feather in the caps of WWF-Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Service.

On June 25, @WWF_Kenya tweeted: “Our family has grown and we need to move some members to a new home. Stay with us as we kick off the journey tomorrow at 7 am #TheBigMove.”

The morning after the tweets went out, a crowd of politicians, senior staff from WWF-K, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and media gathered to launch The Big Move of 14 rhino to the new sanctuary at Tsavo East.

The kickoff’s location was symbolic: the site in Nairobi National Park were, in 1989, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and Richard Leakey torched tons of confiscated elephant tusks and rhino horn. Another such dramatic bonfire blazed in 2016.

These events ignited worldwide focus on efforts in Kenya to stop the slaughter of elephants and rhinos, and to help their populations grow once again.

“Today marks the coming together of a dream that has been in the making for over seven years,” Najib Balala, Kenya’s Minister of Tourism and Wildlife, declared as The Big Move began.

An unspoken message was that Richard Leakey was out of the way. Those now in control of Kenya’s wildlife establishment could work free of the constraints Leakey had imposed.

At the event, WWF-Kenya presented the park with two Land Cruisers, three motorbikes, night vision cameras, tents, radio equipment, binoculars and boots. “This donation of two vehicles and other vital equipment.” Minister Balala added, “will go a long way in ensuring that our rangers on the front line are adequately equipped to carry out their duties.”

The first three rhino slated to travel were camera- and social media-ready, complete with names—Carol, Cheptei, and Bolt. After the fanfare, KWS sharpshooters darted animals with a light tranquilizer, and the animals were pushed into crates. They then left the park and sped along a bumpy road 200 miles to their faraway new home. Cheptei, Carol, and Bolt’s arrival at the boma was the subject of confident tweets put out by the translocation’s organizers at WWF-Kenya on June 27:“Carol, Cheptei and Bolt arrived safely at Tsavo late last night they are among 14 black rhino forming founder population.”

No news seemed like good news.

The “hear-hear” tweets indicate that there was, at least at this stage, communication between KWS and WWF-K. The remaining 11 rhino were scheduled to travel, in stages, over the succeeding two weeks.

By all accounts the capture and transport phases of the translocation were going well. Veterinarians are typically in charge of these, while rangers and wardens are tasked with caring for the animals on their arrival at the release site, including the adaptation period in the boma.  

According to a report made later by the Union of Veterinary Practitioners, the senior warden for Tsavo East accompanied the first lot of rhino, bringing enough fresh vegetation and water to last six days. (The Daily Beast’s repeated efforts to communicate with this senior warden have been unsuccessful.)

Rangers assert that they provided fresh leafy vegetation—called “lucerne” and also “sugarcane straws”—and fresh water from a 500-1,000 gallon water container known as a “bowser.”

Dr. Kibore from the Union of Veterinary Practitioners reports that a week after release, the warden called KWS headquarters to report peculiar behavior by the rhinos, and dispatched rangers with the bowser to the Galana River,  several miles from the sanctuary over rough terrain, to bring more fresh water. En route, the bowser broke.

Rangers and wardens, observing increased water intake among the rhinos and hyper-urination, suspected snakebite.

Four days passed before those dispatched with the bowser returned with water. Kibore cites the failure of rangers to act promptly on the broken bowser as the crucial lapse in the operation. The lack of adequate food and fresh water in the boma would have killed the rhino eventually, Kibore notes, “but full-blown salt water will kill you first.”

On the sixth day after their arrival, the veterinarians’ union report notes that rangers decided to give water from a nearby borehole. But the nearby borehole was the one that was making the rhinos sick to begin with. On July 3, seven days after the first three rhinos arrived, Bolt died. When vets arrived and scanned the corpse for snakebites, they couldn’t find any. On the eighth day in the boma, two more rhinos displayed symptoms like those seen in Bolt. These two also died, as vets tried to treat them. Supposing that snake bite was killing the translocated rhinos, the vets released all but two of the remaining animals from the boma. The veterinarian union report indicates the rhinos’ dehydration was attributable to trauma. “With trauma and stress of undergoing the capture process the rhinos feared the newly placed water points, thinking it was a trap.” Kibore explains that the borehole water points are lined with black plastic, about which the rhino are skittish. He said “the key reason” the animals died, noted on the postmortem, was dehydration.

By the time the vets understood that, sure enough, salt water was the problem, it was too late. According to Kibore, the warden wasn’t aware that rhinos could die from a high intake of salt water.

While a vet was present, he was coming and going between the sanctuary and the other parks, where the rhino embarked. Kibore told The Daily Beast that vets are usually not in attendance during the initial days following release because the wildlife service’s budget doesn’t provide for that kind of post-translocation care.

By July 13 a total of at least seven rhinos had died, and news of the calamity broke to the outside world. Yet there seems to have been little communication in the intervening days among rangers, wardens, and vets in the sanctuary or at KWS headquarters.

Minister Balala, who was outside Kenya at the time, claims to have learned of the deaths only when the public did, and only via media coverage.

Leakey asserts that whatever communications there were between the boma and Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters have been suppressed. He adds that he has reason to think the rangers at Tsavo East had not even been informed that the rhino would be arriving.

Balala quickly issued a statement announcing suspension of the translocation of the three remaining rhino from Lake Nakuru. On his return to Kenya, he held a press conference and announced that he had called for an independent investigation. He later cited an independent post-mortem report stating that salt poisoning may have caused the rhinos to perish as they struggled to adapt to saltier water in their new home. Within six weeks of the translocation’s launch, all the rhinos moved to Tsavo East were dead. One of these was attacked, post-translocation, by lions. Though this death has been attributed to the attack, that rhino, given its dehydration and impaired health, was likely in no shape to fight. The irony that more rhino died in the translocation than were killed by poachers in 2017 was not lost on informed observers, particularly wildlife conservationists.  

The public, in Kenya and outside, demanded answers. With many Kenyans agitating for Balala to resign, the bloodletting shifted, figuratively at least, to the human side of the equation.

Conservationists have blamed the rhino deaths on greed, negligence and the nebulous, growing role of NGOs in the wildlife conservation sector. Angry Kenyans wanted proof that the dead rhinos’ horns had not found their way into the illegal trade. They demanded photos of the corpses with the horns in place. At its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya Wildlife service displayed what it claimed were all 22 horns—two cut off each rhino corpse.The Kenyan government has compiled but not yet released results of an initial inquiry, which sources say states that there were areas of “clear negligence by KWS.” Both Mohamed Awer, CEO of WWF-Kenya, and  Minister Balala acknowledged negligence in the translocation.The operation’s outcome came as no surprise to Leakey, who cites saltwater and mismanagement as prime ingredients in a recipe for disaster.  He places responsibility squarely with WWF-Kenya and on Balala, whom he referred to as CS, or Cabinet Secretary Balala.

The Kenya Wildlife Service “would have only acted on orders of either the [KWS] board or the CS,” Leakey told The Daily Beast. “They would not have gone to WWF, so the must have given them the go ahead.”

Balala, Awer, and their organizations insist that Leakey, when chair of KWS, had given “provisional approval” for the translocation. Leakey denies having given any approval, provisional or otherwise. “Over the life of this project, one of the major donors, WWF, had variously expressed its views about the non-completion of the sanctuary,” Leakey said in a press statement. Speaking with The Daily Beast, he added, “The emergency, I think, was that WWF spent a lot of money building this sanctuary. They wanted the rhinos released in it so they could tell donors ‘job done,’ ‘ribbon tied,’ ‘more money please.’”

“WWF have no legal culpability here,” Leakey observes. “But this does raise questions about foreign assistance to countries. As in: who is the tail and who is the dog?”

“WWF needs to be accountable and put the animals’ welfare before finances,” says Dr Kibore.

Leakey said that Balala had implied that a new KWS board of directors had met, which was a surprise since as far as he was aware a board hadn’t been established. “The absence of a board for the three months has left weighty decisions of the kind concerning discipline and direction entirely with the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife... It is unfortunate that the Minister’s statement failed to reflect the fundamentals behind this tragedy and perhaps dig deeper into the real problems at KWS.”

This absence of a KWS board, said Leakey, provided the window of opportunity for WWF-Kenya to push the translocation through with Minister Balala. Leakey explained to The Daily Beast that KWS is a parastatal organization structured like the military. “You cannot run that sort of military organization without chain of command, if you break the chain of command at the top.”

Offended by the recriminations aimed at him, Balala went on the offensive, accusing Leakey of trying to destroy KWS. The minister cited a recent Price Waterhouse Coopers audit of KWS funded by USAID, blasting KWS for poor management under Leakey’s chairmanship.

While the battle between Leakey and Balala has raged in public, WWF-Kenya and KWS have for the most part kept mute. WWF-Kenya has not responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment. KWS has vowed to take disciplinary action against its rangers if it is found that negligence played a part in the deaths. However, it remains to be seen whether the findings of the investigations will be made public, as promised by the government.

Claus Mortensen, who manages Mugie Ranch in Laikipia, moved 23 rhino from Laikipia to Ruma National Park in 2012. He worked closely with several of the wildlife service officers involved in the Tsavo East translocation. “They’re very competent in the job of the transferring,” he said. Since the 2012 move, only two of those rhino have been lost to poaching. “Rhinos are incredibly tough,” Mortensen says. “They lived all these millions of years. But they’re also super-fragile, especially when they get man-handled.” His conclusion about the fatal Tsavo move: “It’s not the transferring that killed them, it was an oversight of looking carefully at the water supply.”

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