The world was greeted with the sad news that nine endangered black rhinos had died while being tanslocated from the Nakuru and Nairobi national parks to the Tsavo National Park two weeks ago. It took a while before the Kenya Wildlife Services responded on the cause of the deaths, and when the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala, issued a press release, initial reports attributed the deaths to salty water.
The news caused outrage around the world. Questions were raised on the lack of proper planning that would have included a study of the new home for the rhinos before translocating. Maybe KWS did consider the many risk factors when relocating the rhinos as per earlier successful translocations. However, risks to moving 14 endangered black rhinos, all as one lot, despite environmental differences between Nakuru and Tsavo, ended up in the nine deaths, which is a costly blow to Kenya and the entire world.
Kenya's population of the black rhino plummeted from around 20,000 in the 1970s to 350 in 1983. After long term conservation and wildlife strategy implementation, black rhino numbers went up to above 500 in 2017. We will take many years to breed these species back to healthy numbers. Rhinos are such beautiful animals, they are a national heritage earning Africa millions of dollars from wildlife tourism.
A prudent approach for high risk translocation would have taken an experimental approach, starting with a study of the three ecosystems – Nairobi, Nakuru and Tsavo – to determine the appropriateness of Tsavo as home to the black rhinos. Even with compelling evidence that the ecosystem is perfect, KWS should have moved the rhinos piecemeal, building on success as a foreboding to potential problems in the new home.
The KWS has undertaken many successful translocations in the past. No one understands fully what went wrong with this particular translocation, partly funded by WWF. As we await the final investigative report, speculation should stop and a solution found. Conservationists and Kenyans are upset and want answers.
It also sums up the many challenges of the tourism industry in Africa. Marketing efforts show a steady increase in the number of tourists visiting Africa. UNWTO reports show a 11 percent annual growth in the sub-Saharan region. Africa has to plan for the growth in the 2017-2020 strategic frame work plan. Kenya is seeing more investments of top hospitality brands such as Radisson Blu, Hilton and Marriot.
The death of the black rhinos only adds to the problems of Kenya and its relation with wildlife. Poaching of rhinos is a common practice in Africa. In May this year, three rhinos were killed by poachers in Meru National Park. Poaching makes more headlines in the international media as compared to news of successful conservation. We have to tell the world more how we protect and conserve the beautiful wonders of world like the Masai Mara.
However, the reality is, Africa is struggling with conservation despite the funding. The fact that our endangered animals need more surveillance. Executing a sensitive project like a translocation of endangered animals requires careful planning and accurate execution.
From a country-branding perspective, the deaths create questions among potential tourists and conservationists.
The National Geographic described the deaths as a major step back which “undermines years of conservation efforts”. This is not the best message that needs to get out there at a time when the tourism industry is growing and as we approach the high season. The speed of accurate communications in such crisis must be addressed and this may determine faster stakeholder understanding.
The KWS has been known for training rangers, posting doctors to all sanctuaries and working with NGOs to create long-term scientific successful solutions. Creating policies that improve interdependence between communities and wildlife can go a long way to conserving endangered species. This will enhance Kenya’s tourism portfolio and create a much-needed source of wealth for the country.
All stakeholders need to come together for the success of conservation efforts. Kenyans are passionate about their national heritage, wildlife and natural attractions and need to be more involved in translocation studies and wildlife conservation.
We must up even more on our wildlife and environment sustainability projects, to enhance strong public and private support to our institutions and make sure that our children and their children will enjoy the sight of wild animals like black rhinos.
Chris Diaz is a conservationist and director at Wildlife Direct