A mission to move 14 black rhinos from Nairobi to a national park in southern Kenya went horribly wrong, with eight animals now dead, one anonymous wildlife official has said. The project to introduce the rhinos to the newly created Tsavo East National Park has now been put on hold and the remaining six are being kept under close supervision.
The original plan was to move the animals from Kenya’s capital to the park in the hope that it would bolster the number of black rhinos in the area. Transportation is a common strategy and has only recently been used to re-introduce black rhinos to Chad and Rwanda, but it requires careful planning and execution.
“Moving rhinos is complicated, akin to moving gold bullion, it requires extremely careful planning and security due to the value of these rare animals,” Paula Kahumbu, a Kenyan conservationist who works with WildlifeDirect, said in a statement. “Rhino translocations also have major welfare considerations and I dread to think of the suffering that these poor animals endured before they died. We need to know what went wrong so that it never happens again.”
Eleven of the rhinos had been transferred to the park when the Kenyan government made the announcement on Friday. The plan was to move 14 in total.
Losing the rhinos is “a complete disaster”, Kahumbu told the Associated Press (AP). While the government has been quiet concerning the reason for the deaths, they have said that if negligence turns out to be the cause, “disciplinary action” will be on the cards. So far, preliminary investigations suggest that salt poisoning may be to blame because the rhinos were unable to adapt to the saltier waters in the reserve, the Telegraph reports.
According to conservation group Save the Rhino, there are now only estimated to be between 5,000 and 5,500 black rhinos in the wild and they are considered to be a critically endangered species. They are smaller and rarer than their white rhino counterparts, but just like their relatives, they are targeted by poachers for their horns – a hot commodity in the illegal trade for traditional Asian medicine. (Even specimens in zoos have been attacked.)
The death of eight rhinos is clearly a tragedy, but it is also worth remembering that the relocation of animals are, in most cases, successful when implemented with care. What’s more, conservation programs like these have helped black rhino numbers recover from a low point of 2,400 or so individuals in the 1990s.
Between 2005 and 2017, there were 149 rhinos relocated around Kenya and eight deaths, AP reports.