Rhino are a "flagship" species, which is battling to survive. If we do not do all we can to protect them, but roll over and let them disappear, then we send the worst of signals about the state of, and our attitude towards, conservation in Laikipia, and indeed Kenya.
The Plight of Black Rhino
In the 1970’s there were 70,000 black rhino in Africa. Today they number 3,000. This extraordinary animal is on the brink of extinction. The demand for rhino horn is such that it fetches up to USD 65,000 a kilo in the Far East. Almost two rhino a day are butchered to satisfy this market, and the numbers continue to rise.
The recent demand for rhino horn and the resulting resurgence in poaching has reached catastrophic levels. In South Africa 650 rhino have been slaughtered this year alone. In proportion to its population, Kenya has lost even more.
The market price of rhino horn now rivals gold in value and it is estimated that the trade in illegal wildlife products is worth over $17 billion a year. In the Far East, rhino horn is sold as a traditional medicine. Despite having been scientifically proven to have no medicinal properties whatsoever (rhino horn is comprised of keratin – the same substance as ones fingernails and hair), it continues to be in high demand with the wealthy elite – perhaps as much a status symbol, as an aphrodisiac or the cure for cancer that it is purported to be.
As a result the poachers have become ever more determined and motivated, using high caliber assault weapons and sophisticated night-vision to operate at night. It has even been suggested in the global media that there are links between revenue from poaching and terrorism organizations in Kenya. With such money available, the slaughter escalates almost daily. It has become a war. And despite the sacrifices made by those determined to ensure that this species will survive, its a war that is being lost.
As a result the pressure has mounted to extraordinary levels on both the national and private sectors involved with protecting this species. As the threat of poaching increases and becomes ever more sophisticated, so too must the determination and resources needed to protect rhino.
Because of this, some private conservancies have withdrawn their support, no longer able to match the escalating costs associated with protecting rhino. As a result, rhino now face a further confounding challenge towards their survival: a lack of habitat.
The population is currently static, neither increasing nor declining. The births are just about keeping up with the losses to poaching. But the places prepared to take on and stand up to this onslaught in poaching are on the decline. With no space the rhino can’t breed. Soon the killings will outnumber the births. Rhinos need more habitat.
Historic Translocation of Black Rhinos from Lewa to Borana
Back in August 2013, Lewa moved 11 critically endangered black rhinos to the neighbouring Borana Conservancy in one of Lewa's biggest translocations yet. The translocation has decongested Lewa's rhino population and reintroduced black rhinos to Borana Conservancy, an area they last inhabited in the 1970s. Also involved is the Kenya Wildlife Service, the state corporation mandated to conserve and manage Kenya's wildlife. Borana also received 10 black rhinos from Nakuru National Park, another area with a dense rhino population.
Borana Rhino Conservation
Rhino are one of the most important species in Kenya to be threatened by extinction. A large and unscrupulous market for rhino horn products in the Far East fetches prices that rival gold. As a result poaching gangs in the country have escalated on an unprecedented scale. 2013 saw the largest decline both nationally and globally of rhino due to poaching.
As a knock on effect of this the security measures needed to protect rhino are vast and prohibitively expensive. As a result, many conservancies lack the capacity to protect rhino, meaning that habitat for rhino is more and more scarce. This directly affects breeding rates, which further confounds the survival of the species.
In response to this crisis Borana Conservancy introduced 21 black rhino in August 2013 in an effort to contribute to both the short-term and long-term goals of the national Strategy for Black rhino
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which borders Borana, has exceeded its Ecological Carrying capacity (ECC) for black rhino (estimated at 70). There is a need for more habitats on a local level and the introduction of rhino on Borana pre-empted the fence between the two conservancies being brought down. The resulting 94,000 acres of contiguous ecosystem will help negate any decline in breeding rates arising from an exceeded ECC on Lewa, as well as significantly contribute to the overall need for secure habitat in Kenya, whilst the ECC of 45 rhino on Borana and 70 on Lewa means there is the potential for over 100 black rhino to be sustained within a single ecosystem – a wonderful achievement.
Borana has been continually improving its infrastructure, supplementing its manpower and equipment and developing its systems accordingly with the help and advice of members of the Association of Private Land Rhino Sanctuaries, including Lewa, Ol Pejeta and Ol Jogi. As such Borana is now part of an ecosystem that supports nearly 20% of all Kenya’s Black rhino.
Further to that, it is expected that white rhino, also globally threatened will passively move onto Borana, and their breeding rates are also expected to increase as a result.
Given the fact that rhinos are facing the greatest threat in history from poaching, this is a positive story in the midst of bad news. Borana's pledge to conservation will see black rhinos introduced to an area they last inhabited decades ago. This is a commitment which few others are willing to take on, given the cost and security risk associated with holding rhinos today.
This translocation is also a big celebration of Lewa's success as a rhino sanctuary. Years of conservation efforts have seen Lewa reach its maximum black rhino carrying capacity and the Conservancy is now able to restock areas that previously held this endangered species.