Eleven black rhinos. Millions of donor shillings. Tens of rangers. And a new sanctuary.
The death of the tenth rhino this week blew the lid off on the debacle that was the transfer of the animals from Nairobi and Nakuru to Tsavo East National Park.
The events at Kenya’s largest park will go down in history as the most costly blunder in the conservation of endangered species.
A committee formed two weeks ago reported that highly saline water, dehydration, starvation and bacterial attack were responsible for the deaths.
The eleventh rhino was reported to be nursing injuries following a lion attack.
Black rhinos are critically endangered and the loss of the 10 has put Tourism CS Najib Balala in the firing line.
When the CS suspended six senior officials in charge of the relocation and demoted KWS Director-General Julius Kimani on Thursday, it was the climax of the fiasco.
Those suspended are Dr Samuel Kasiki who was in charge of biodiversity and research, Mr Francis Gakuya who headed veterinary and capture services, Dr Isaac Leekolol who was head of capture services, Tsavo East senior warden Felix Mwangagi, Dr Mohammed Omar who was in charge of ecological and monitoring services and Mr Frederick Odock, a senior scientist.
Mr Balala, however, absolved the ministry from blame, arguing that a fully autonomous technical team is responsible for the programme that is funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature.
“How it (translocation) is done, when, by who it is done goes to the technical issues, handled by the institution (KWS) itself,” he said in a TV interview last week.
Biologists consider translocation as an effective strategy of managing animal species to curtail the risk of extinction.
Black rhinos are territorial animals and require huge space.
Kenya Rhino Programme Coordinator and KWS senior ranger Linus Kariuki says translocation of wildlife is complex.
“Relocation covers the entire process from planning, transfer, release, monitoring and post-release management of the animals,” he said.
According to UK-based conservationist Kate Whittington, lack of careful analysis of environmental and ecological factors is to blame for questionable success rates.
“Finding a replacement habitat might seem simple, but there are other factors related to a species’ well-being that may make survival at new sites a challenge,” she said.
Mr Kariuki said the choice of Tsavo was informed by historical factors.
“Tsavo had the highest concentration of rhinos, about 800 animals, before poaching nearly wiped them out,” he said.
While suspending the officers, Mr Balala said that the translocation was mismanaged from the start.
A 2010 census showed that Tsavo East had 11 black rhinos. Introducing 14 others to the ecosystem would not only relieve the parks in Nakuru and Nairobi but also encourage faster breeding.
KWS says Tsavo East has the capacity to comfortably hold 55 rhinos.
While drought in the park between 2014 and 2016 significantly inhibited breeding, KWS says the numbers have started to improve.
“The population stands at 15, thanks to close monitoring and conservation,” Mr Kariuki said.
After capture, the animals are usually aggressive.
“If released soon after capture, the rhinos may run even beyond the park. We, therefore, hold them for about two weeks,” he said.
At the holding cages, the rhinos are fed with shrubs, watered and cleaned.
But even most importantly, the rhinos are kept under a 24-hour surveillance.
But how the animals died with such intensive monitoring remains as foggy now as it was when the mess started.
“Even after they are released to the wild, we keep a round-the-clock track of the animals. Our team of rangers conducts daily patrols within the park to locate them and to ensure that they are safe,” a senior ranger says. “Tsavo East is a vast park. If we don’t locate and account for every single rhino every day, it could move far away from the reach of our rangers. Locating it afresh is not easy.”
Losing track of the rhinos also leaves them at the mercy of poachers.
But how the animals died with such intensive monitoring remains as foggy now as it was when the saga started.
Translocations may be carried out for three reasons: to boost numbers in existing populations that are critically threatened, to increase the animals’ roaming space, and to establish new populations in habitats where none existed before.
In the 1950s and 60s, 254 black bears were transferred to Ozark Mountains in Arkansas in the US. In 10 years, the bears had multiplied to 2,500.
This is considered as one of the most successful animal translocation programmes in history.
Translocation of bird species has the highest success rate at 59 per cent, followed by mammals at 38 per cent and amphibians at three per cent.
In May this year, Kenya had 745 black rhinos, the third highest population in the world. The number now stands at 735, if the injured rhino will survive.