It's a cat and mouse game saving the rhino

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

By Rupi Mangat

Posted  Monday, April 12   2010 at  00:00

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.

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