Critically Endangered Black Rhinos Die After Transportation To Kenya National Park

Jul 13, 2018
Originally published on July 14, 2018 12:07 pm

Eight endangered black rhinos died after being transported to a new wildlife reserve in Africa. The dead were among 11 black rhinos taken from Nairobi and Lake Nakuru National Parks to Tsavo East National Park. Kenyan wildlife officials said a preliminary investigation showed the rhinos died from the high salinity of the water in their new environment, and described the death toll as unprecedented in their efforts to revive the black rhino population.

In a statement, the conservation group Wildlife Direct said, "This is shocking and disheartening. The translocation exercise was meant to support the successful breeding program of this critically endangered species of black rhino for which Kenya holds 80% of the sub-species... This is a major conservation tragedy, not just for Kenya but for all rhinos."

According to Cathy Dean, chief executive of Save the Rhino, the relocation of endangered animals, a process called translocation, can help prevent their extinction. She said a postmortem is essential. "You have to proactively manage your populations, whether that's for genetic diversity or to relieve overcrowded areas, or to create new populations," Dean said. "A key part of that is being able to do translocations. We have to find out what's gone wrong, so that these mistakes are never repeated."

Dean said there were once thousands of black rhinos in Kenya but now their population is in the hundreds.

With a goal of bringing them back, Dean said Kenya aims to increase the number of black rhinos by 2,000. The translocation of the animals to Tsavo East National Park, was part of an effort to do that.

"It appears that about a year ago there were only ten to 15 black rhinos surviving in Tsavo East National Park, so that is part of the national black rhino strategy. The Kenya Wildlife Service, with its partners, had determined that it would be a good plan to move more rhinos to Tsavo East National Park, to reestablish a breeding population," Dean said.

During translocation, animals are sedated for the journey, before being woken at their destination. Both the travel and adjustment to a new environment make translocation a delicate process.

In a statement, Kenya's Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, said, "Preliminary investigations by KWS veterinary teams attribute the deaths to salt poisoning as a result of taking water of high salinity on arrival in the new environment. These findings are consistent with cases of salt poisoning in other animal species, indicating a challenge in the translocated rhinos' adaptation to the change from fresh water to saline water in the sanctuary. The high salt levels lead to dehydration that triggers thirst mechanism, resulting in excess water intake of the saline water that further exacerbates the problem."

Kenya's government said it has invited Peter Gathumbi, a senior veterinary pathologist from the University of Nairobi, to carry out an independent investigation. It also said the remaining rhinos that were transported "are being closely monitored by veterinary and park management teams and are being provided with fresh water in temporary water pans, as we await the full postmortem examination report and further forensic investigations."

The rhino population has dwindled in part because of targeting by poachers, who want the animals' horns. Economic development in Asia has fueled demand for rhino horns, which are used in some Chinese and Vietnamese medicines and displayed as a symbol of wealth.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, nine rhinos were killed in Kenya last year. Three were shot dead inside a protected sanctuary in northern Kenya in May.

NPR's Eyder Peralta reported on the death of the last male northern white rhino on the planet, named Sudan, in March. Kenyan vets put Sudan down, after he became ill.

"Sudan, the world's last male northern white rhinoceros, died in Kenya on Monday, leaving his species one step closer to extinction, even as a group of scientists undertake an unprecedented effort to try to keep this animal from vanishing entirely," Peralta wrote.

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And in what feels like a sad irony, eight endangered black rhinos have died after being moved to a new wildlife reserve in Kenya as a way of protecting them. A preliminary investigation is pointing to too much salt in the water at their new home. NPR's Shannon Van Sant reports.

SHANNON VAN SANT, BYLINE: The black rhinos were among 11 being taken from Kenya's capital and Lake Nakuru National Park to Tsavo East National Park. Save the Rhino's Cathy Dean says the relocation of endangered species can help prevent their extinction, but that the process, called translocation, is delicate and risky.

CATHY DEAN: If you are intending to catch and crate and move an animal and release it somewhere else, it's going to be under sedation - under heavy sedation at the beginning and the end of the process, and then probably sedated at some level while it's in transit.

VAN SANT: The animals then have to adjust to their new environment.

DEAN: The spaces available to wildlife, including rhinos, are shrinking. And you can't simply leave wildlife to get on with it. You've actually got to proactively manage your populations, whether that's for genetic diversity or to relieve overcrowded areas or to create new populations. And, you know, a key part of that is being able to do translocations. But we have to find out what's gone wrong so that these mistakes are never repeated.

VAN SANT: Wildlife officials were hoping a new sanctuary in Tsavo East National Park would serve as a breeding ground. Dean says there used to be thousands of black rhinos in Kenya. Now the numbers are in the hundreds. Rhino numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years because of targeting by poachers who want the rhinos' horns, and because of demand in Asia, where the horns are used in some medicines and displayed as symbols of status and wealth.

Kenya's government says it has suspended the transportation of black rhinos and that there will be an independent investigation of the rhinos' deaths. Shannon Van Sant, NPR News.

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