It's a cat and mouse game saving the rhino

Monday April 12 2010

Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers translocate

Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers translocate rhinos from a special sanctuary to the wild. 

By Rupi Mangat

With poachers and human encroachment on rangeland growing by the day, animal populations are rapidly diminishing in Kenya. And none is more affected than the black rhino.

The animal was recently the subject of a talk by Ian Craig, a Kenya Wildlife Service board member, as the Kenya Museums Society marked its 40th anniversary.

Craig is also a strategic director of Lewa Downs Conservancy and Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and chief executive of the Northern Rangelands Trust.

In the past 15 years, the Kenyan black rhino (Diceros bicornis Michaeli) has done fairly well. The challenge, according to Craig, is where to put them and how to save them from the ever-vigilant poachers.

Historically, the black rhino population in Kenya was so huge that they were considered vermin.

In the early 1950s, the colonial government dispatched J.A Hunter, a wildlife control officer, to shoot as many as he could to clear the land for farming in Ukambani, lower Eastern Province.

Hunter recorded in his diary that he shot a thousand in a couple of months but questioned the wisdom of having to shoot them to the point when there would be no more land left to be cleared.

A 1960 photograph of a herd of black rhino in Amboseli National Park shows them lounging by a swamp, full and fat (inset top, right).

To see more than two at a time today is rare, and a family herd is almost unheard of. At the height of poaching — between 1970 and 1983 — Kenya lost almost 93 per cent of its rhinos, with almost four and a half being killed per day for their horns. In 1983, Kenya had only 280 black rhinos.

Despite the heavy security, the threat to this prehistoric megaherbivore is being blamed on rising poverty and proliferation of firearms, even though the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) has slapped a ban on trade in rhino horn.

For a person living on less than a dollar a day, poaching is tempting because a kilo of rhino horn can fetch Ksh120,000 ($1,600), says Craig.

In recent times, poachers have been using poisoned arrows so as not to attract the attention of the rangers with noisy firearms. Some are even known to use dogs to sniff out their quarry. The all-time favourite is the cable snare laid in the forest.

New market drivers such as the Vietnamese claims that rhino horn can cure cancer do little to abate the trade.
“Kenya’s policy is of non-usage and the Cites ban has worked to some extent,” said Craig. “For now, it’s important that the ban remains.

In Kenya, every rhino counts. KWS goes to extraordinary lengths to protect the animals,” he added.
Using bloodhounds that can track poachers even 36 hours after the kill has led to the arrest of a number of poachers.

“Kenya’s Vision 2030 is to see 2,000 black rhinos in the wild,” said Craig. With the current success rate of rhino breeding in the country — almost 48 newborns per year — the workload is increasing.

There is a lot of translocation of rhinos, as many as three to five every day from high density areas to suitable low density ones such as northern Kenya.

“Some 25 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife is found in northern Kenya,” Craig pointed out. Northern Kenya’s landscape is mostly arid rangeland, unsuitable for farming. According to Craig, it’s an area to invest in, working alongside local people.

“Wildlife can be used as a tool for peace,” he said, where communities take charge of their private sanctuaries and work towards poverty eradication, one of the Millennium Development Goals under Vision 2030
The 55,000-acre private Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya is one of the great black rhino conservation success stories and serves as a model for other sanctuaries throughout Africa.

One of the first ones, encouraged by Craig, started in 1995 at Il Ngwesi, a 16,500 acre group-ranch owned by the Laikipia Maasai to the northwest of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, followed by Ngare Ndare, Lekurruki and Kalama group ranches, with Namunyak further north in Samburu.

Working closely with people from these ranches, as well as the KWS, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy has located and anticipated poaching attempts, apprehended poachers and confiscated their guns.

Meanwhile, fossil records show that the rhino has been around on earth for a long, long time.
Fossil evidence of the mega-herbivore shows its earliest home as North America during the Eocene epoch, about 54.8 to 33.7 million years ago.
Since then, many species have come and gone, but none so rapidly as the modern day rhino. In the span of a century, it has been almost wiped out, mostly due to the demand for its horn — which isn’t even a horn to begin with.

“It’s tightly bound hair,” says Dr Ben Okita, the senior scientist with the KWS Rhino Conservation programme. “It’s the same stuff as keratin in our nails and hair, so people may as well chew on those as on the rhino horn. It would be far cheaper.”

We’re discussing the recent recovery of two rhino horns in Laikipia, Kenya, on January 3, this year. Rhino horn, unfortunately, has been touted as a cure-all and a powerful aphrodisiac in traditional Far-Eastern medicine.

In Yemen, rhino horn dagger handles inlaid with precious stones are a status symbol. The pseudo-horn on the illegal market is as precious as white gold, where even the leftover shavings are ground into powder for medicine.

By December last year, Kenya had 612 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis michaeli) and 325 white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum), including four of the extremely rare northern white, (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) brought from zoos in Czechoslavakia to Ol-Pejeta Conservancy. There are now two remaining in Czechoslovakia and two in the US.

After the mass poaching of the 1970s to 1990s, which saw the black rhino population in Kenya plummet from about 20,000 to a paltry 300, the rhino population has started to rise, thanks to the efforts of KWS, the government and international organisations.

But the threat from poaching is on the increase. “We consider animals poached at one per cent of the population as level,” says Okita. Anything above that is of great concern. “At this point, the poaching for black rhinos stands at two per cent and for the white rhino, at 1.5 per cent.”

On the night of December 28, 2009, five poachers shot dead a female rhino in one of the most secure private ranches in Kenya, Mugi Ranch. She was a southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum).

In a swift operation, ranch personnel, KWS warders and the local community traced the poachers. On January 3, this year, police officers based at Laikipia intercepted a car with five men.

With the aid of specially trained dogs that can sniff out a suspect from footprints left at the scene, the vehicle was thoroughly checked and out came two horns weighing 7.2 kilogrammes, plus over half a million Kenyan shillings and a cache of weapons.

The suspected poachers are now free men after each paid a Ksh50,000 (about $667) bond. They are awaiting the mention of their case in court. If convicted, they could get away with a two-year sentence.

“The magistrate acted within the parameters of the law when fining the suspects,” says Okita.
The rhino is one of the most threatened species, and is listed on Cites as Appendix One, meaning no trade whatsoever in the animal or its products is allowed.

But under the Kenyan Wildlife Act, the rhino is regarded as any other wildlife and is not a specially protected species. In South Africa, the Southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) is under Appendix Two, meaning limited trade in it is allowed.

This is because the country has over 11,000 animals after they were brought back from the verge of extinction by the end of the 19th century under one of the most successful conservation programmes.

Besides the threat from poachers, there’s the threat of habitat destruction as people settle on wildlife dispersal areas such as the Athi-Kapiti plains bordering the Nairobi National