11 black rhinos die after Kenyan conservation plan goes wrong

Kenya's Tourism and Wildlife Minister Najib Balala looking on as wildlife services personnel subdued a sedated black rhino in Nairobi National Park for transfer to a new sanctuary in Tsavo East in June.
Kenya's Tourism and Wildlife Minister Najib Balala looking on as wildlife services personnel subdued a sedated black rhino in Nairobi National Park for transfer to a new sanctuary in Tsavo East in June.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NAIROBI • It was a disaster that left wildlife lovers appalled and baffled. Eleven of Kenya's precious black rhinos were transferred to a new home in what was supposed to be a routine operation. So how did all of them end up dead?

The primary cause of death, an official report found, was toxic levels of salt in the water of their sanctuary. But an investigation has found that the problem was well known and deep concerns were ignored.

The translocation was launched in late June by Kenya's Tourism and Wildlife Minister Najib Balala and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which donated US$1 million (S$1.37 million) for the project.

Dubbed #TheBigMove, the operation would help ensure the survival of a species brutally depleted by poaching. The International Union for Conservation of Nature describes the black rhino as critically endangered - just one step away from being extinct in the wild.

Rhinos from parks in Nairobi and Nakuru were sedated, loaded and transported to a new sanctuary in Tsavo East, a project that the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and WWF had spent six years preparing.

There, the rhinos drank borehole water so salty it corroded a metal grill around the pump valve, and no other wildlife would come near it, said Kenya's Union of Veterinary Practitioners head Benson Kibore.

The saline water made the animals only thirstier, pushing them to drink more, drawing water out of their body tissue, thickening and slowing their blood. They were "desiccated", said Dr Kibore.

A rhino named Bolt was the first to die, and the others soon followed. The last, Jack, was so weakened he could not fend off a lion attack.

Evidence of the tussle over the translocation comes from a meeting in May last year attended by KWS officials and WWF's chief rhino expert, Mr Martin Mulama. Two sets of minutes were written: The first made no mention of concerns, but was amended after complaints from some present, leading to a second version that included the warning: "The prevailing habitat could not allow any translocation to take place."

Mr Mulama strongly denied pressuring anyone to push ahead with the translocation and insisted that sole responsibility lay with the KWS.

"At no time would we do anything detrimental to the species we were trying to protect," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2018, with the headline '11 black rhinos die after Kenyan conservation plan goes wrong'. Print Edition | Subscribe