All rhinos translocated to Tsavo East National Park have died

Black rhino behind trees in Kenya.

On 26 July 2018, the Hon. Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry for Tourism and Wildlife published the initial results of the independent inquiry into the deaths of nine (now all 11) rhinos in Tsavo East National Park.

The inquiry stated that the nine rhinos (and another) died as a result of multiple stress syndrome, which was intensified by salt poisoning, dehydration, starvation and gastric issues. Furthermore, the statement noted that clear professional negligence took place at the release site, with poor communication between teams causing issues not to be acknowledged. We understand the 11th rhino has died following an attack by lions within Tsavo East.

Inevitably perhaps, the accusations and counter-accusations have begun.

Before we bring you up-to-date with developments, it’s worth recapping the original plan and some of the history of Tsavo East National Park.

The planned translocation to the new, fenced Sanctuary in Tsavo East

In the mid-20th century, Tsavo East National Park (TENP) used to be home to an estimated 2,000 Eastern black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli). The last poaching crisis of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s knocked numbers down to virtually zero.

In the early 1990s, having regained control over the poaching situation, the Kenya Wildlife Service made the decision to reintroduce black rhino to the Park. The animals were carefully held and released into specific locations, monitored by radio-transmitters in their horns. The aim was to promote local colonisation of the rhinos without the use of fencing.

Save the Rhino was one of the donors to that project, and we continued to support rhino monitoring efforts until 2006, when we agreed, in conjunction with KWS, that our financial support was no longer needed. The KWS advised that monitoring was a core part of their work and that therefore, this should be funded by park entry fees, rather than by international donors such as Save the Rhino.

With our direct involvement over, we no longer had a detailed insight into the rhino situation in TENP, but it seems that a slow attrition by poachers reduced rhino numbers down to 10 or 11 animals by c. 2015. The question then arose as to what to do with these animals, and in TENP?

Kenya’s previous 5-year black rhino management strategy (2012 – 2016), flagged the serious problem of the lack of space available for Kenya’s slowly growing national rhino population: with an increasing human population and an accompanying demand for natural resources, Kenya was running out of space for its wildlife, including rhinos. The vast space of TENP, which has good habitat and natural water sources including the Galana River, offered an attractive possibility for re-establishing a black rhino population within the country.

The decision was made – we do not know when, or by whom – that rather than experimenting again with a free-release translocation, the new project would involve a fenced sanctuary. Habitat, water and security surveys were made, plans drawn up, and the new sanctuary’s fence line constructed. Initially, it was hoped that artificial ‘scrapes’ (large water pans dug out of the ground) would capture enough rainwater for the sanctuary’s rhinos, but a reassessment determined that boreholes would be needed. We believe that the plan was to try to round up the Park’s remaining 10-11 rhinos and move them into the sanctuary, and then supplement those with additional animals sourced from other Kenyan national parks. We do not know whether any of the existing rhinos within TENP were in fact moved into the sanctuary.

The nightmare result

On 26 June 2018, the planned translocations of 14 rhinos, six from Lake Nakuru and eight from Nairobi National Parks, began. Media coverage of the first captures and translocations was widely circulated. However, after 11 animals had been moved, rumours surfaced of deaths during and immediately after the translocation exercise. On 13 July the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism issued a statement to say confirm the remaining translocations were being suspended after eight rhinos had died.

From photographs that were published of the translocation operation in the media, it can be seen that the rhinos were being transported in old metal crates that were too large for black rhinos (the rhinos had too much room to move around inside during the journey) and that they were not blindfolded or fitted with ear-muffs for the 6-hour road journey to TENP. We also understand that the rhinos were sedated only with M99 (etorphine), meaning that they would have been fully conscious throughout the move.

On arrival in TENP, the rhinos were meant to have stayed in bomas (holding pens), usually for a period of 3–10 days, under observation, to check that they were adapting to the new environment and calm before the full release into the sanctuary. However, we understand that when one animal would not get up within its boma, the decision was made to release all rhinos immediately. One rhino was said to have bolted straight through the fence; we believe this to be the animal that was attacked by lions and subsequently died.

We understand that two of the rhinos died during or immediately after the translocation, while the other eight died due to salt poisoning after drinking water with a higher salt content on arrival in Tsavo East.

In one, horrible episode, Kenya has lost the more black rhinos via this translocation exercise than were killed by poachers in 2017 (9 rhinos) and 2016 (10 rhinos). How could such a thing happen?

Investigating the causes of the deaths

During the course of a frantic few days, several steps were announced, including the commissioning of an independent rhino veterinary expert, Dr Dave Zimmerman from SANParks, to carry out a review in conjunction with officials from the KWS, and a separate, criminal investigation by the Kenyan police (we do not know if this is going ahead).

The statement by the Cabinet Secretary, Hon. Najib Balala, on 26 July draws on Dr Zimmerman’s initial findings, but it’s important to note that Dr Zimmerman’s full report has not yet been published.

“According to the Inquiry team, the cause of all the deaths was due to multiple stress syndrome intensified by salt poisoning and complicated by the following conditions: dehydration, starvation, proliferation of opportunistic bacteria in upper respiratory tract (Pasteurella species), gastric ulcers and gastritis.

“The independent inquiry further showed there were areas of clear negligence that occurred post-translocation at the release site in Tsavo, especially in the holding BOMA at the sanctuary. These included poor co-ordination and communication among officers that were responsible for pre-translocation studies, including biomass assessments; environmental impact assessments and water quality assessments. The results of the water assessments were hardly considered before execution of the operation.”

The Cabinet Secretary went on to announce that several KWS members of staff (including the Acting Director General Julius Kimani, the Head of Veterinary and Capture Services Dr Francis Gakuya, the vet in charge of the translocation exercise Isaac Lekolool and the Senior Warden at Tsavo East Felix Mwangangi) had been suspended or demoted with immediate effect; a further announcement gave details of the new Acting Director General.

Accusations and counter-accusations have, perhaps inevitably, followed.

The Union of Veterinary Practitioners Kenya (UVPK) responded with a press release saying that the decision to suspend wildlife vets was “totally uncalled for, unwarranted and totally resisted”.

The former Chair of the KWS Board, Dr Richard Leakey, issued a statement on 27 July saying that, prior to the end of his tenure as Chair on 17 April 2018, the Board had noted that “…there was a deep concern about the lack of vegetation in the sanctuary that could sustain rhino and also, the real issue of available and safe water.” Dr Leakey went on to say that his Board had not given approval for the translocation of rhinos into the TENP sanctuary and that, to his knowledge, the new Board had not yet met, therefore decisions must have been made by the Ministry for Tourism and Wildlife, which “is not provided for in the existing legislation governing KWS and its operations”.

An article in the Daily Telegraph following Dr Leakey’s statement stated that there has been outrage on Twitter, with many Kenyans calling for the Minister’s resignation. Another blames WWF-Kenya for pursuing the construction of the sanctuary and the translocation of the rhinos.

What needs to happen now

Save the Rhino wants to see the publication in full of Dr Dave Zimmerman’s report. Given the heated nature of the exchanges to date, allowing a neutral, independent expert to state clearly and openly where the failings – whether in the veterinary, capture, moving or husbandry protocols – lay is vital.

Outdated equipment must be replaced. Vets may need to be sent for retraining; there is an excellent annual dangerous drugs course at Malilangwe in Zimbabwe that all respected wildlife vets attend, with 5-year refreshers. It would be valuable for Kenyan vets to take part in capture operations in other countries that carry out frequent translocations or veterinary interventions, primarily South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. We would like to see the KWS invite external veterinary experts such as Drs Dave Zimmerman, Dave Cooper, Markus Hofmeyr or Jacques Flamand – to act as mentors to Kenyan vets, guiding Kenyan operations for the next few years while developing the next generation of vets. But fundamentally, the KWS has got to employ vets who will put the rhinos’ safety and welfare first, regardless of personal egos.

Our fears for the future

Kenya’s national rhino strategy has a long-term vision of a total black rhino population of 2,000 animals. Reaching this goal will only be possible if the current populations are appropriately managed; they are relocated in specific areas with good genetic mixes that enables each park or conservancy to host a viable breeding population of animals (having 200 locations with only 10 rhinos in each, for example, would not work). Moving rhinos from one place to another is essential to ensure good genetic diversity across the population and in order to re-establish populations in areas where they had previously been poached to local extinction.

Save the Rhino’s CEO, Cathy Dean, says:

“Now that we are faced with this truly tragic situation, we must learn from it. We call on the Kenya Wildlife Service to fully examine what happened and why things went so badly wrong.

”Our real fear is that this disaster will paralyse decision-making in Kenya. Not pro-actively managing a country’s rhino population for growth is just as bad as the effects of poaching, or as losing animals unnecessarily through incompetence. We have to hope that the KWS has the courage to fully explore the points at which the wrong decisions were made and to learn from them, so that it can successfully implement the actions identified in the next 5-year black rhino strategy – the publication of which has been postponed due to the Tsavo East crisis.”

Our initial response to the original news of these translocation deaths can be found here.

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