Critical search for snared black rhino
Chyulu Hills, Kenya
The above image shows the shocking photo of a critically endangered black rhino with a snare around its neck. The photo was captured by camera traps in the Chyulu Hills, Kenya.
On 12 March, we received an email from Samar Ntalamia, the Programmes Manager at Maasailand Preservation Trust / Big Life Foundation:
"Monday, morning, as Anthony [Kasanga, MPT / BLF's Enforcement and Intelligence Officer], was going through the camera trap photos, he was left agape - and seeing better with his mouth open. One of the photos that came up on his screen, was of a rhino with a wire snare round its neck. And more photos taken at different times, showed the same rhino, visiting the water hole at Kitie in Mukururo, with the wire snare digging deeper and deeper into his neck. We have mobilized units of our ranger teams as well as KWS rangers and all these teams are out in the bush, to look for the wire snare rhino. Some sentries have been posted at the OP, as well to try and sight the rhino."
The images from the camera traps were found by staff from the Big Life Foundation / Maasailand Preservation Trust, which works to protect the region's critically endangered black rhino population. Several photos taken at different times showed the rhino returning to visit the waterhole, each time with the cable digging deeper into the rhino's neck. It is unknown how long the rhino has been caught in the snare.
An urgent search operation was launched to find the rhino, so he could be immobilsed and the snare removed. The joint operation by BLF / MPT and the Kenya Wildlife Service has sent 40 rangers searching for the black rhino bull, sometime for up to 48 hours in the thick and dangerous bush.
Tuesday 19 March, from Richard Bonham, project leader: "Just had a call in to say that the snared rhino came to drink last night. All hands are on deck."
Wednesday 20 March, from Richard Bonham: "Yesterday was yet another gruelling and sadly unsuccessful day. Everything initially went according to plan, the chopper and vet arrived, we all thought the hard work over the last 10 days was going to pay off, but it did not. After 4 hours of chopper time and 6 hours in the Super Cub, systematically searching the dense forest we were unable to locate the rhino, but did manage to see a healthy cow and calf.
As the sun set the chopper had to return to Nairobi as our budget had been expended… $9,000 dollars wasted, but it would have been worth every cent if we had found him. A breeding rhino bull in this day and age is just to valuable to lose. This morning the tracker team are on the tracks again, having found where it had laid up in a steep valley, which explains why we never spotted it. We hope that they will be able to stay on the tracks and then when the rhino gets into an area where it can be darted, we will try again."
Saturday 23 March from Richard Bonham: "Sorry we have not been updating you more on what happening on the rhino search, but it's been hectic to say the least. Yesterday we saw an immense effort from so many different fronts… Kenya Wildlife Service sent a chopper and two vets, Ian Craig from the Northern Rangelands Trust arrived in his Super Cub and the Big Life and KWS rangers were in the field from dawn to dusk for 10th consecutive day. Despite this, the rhino evaded us yet again. At one stage, the ground team were 20 yards from him, but he broke cover and before the chopper could get over him before he disappeared into such thick lava-strewn forest that even the chopper could not get a visual on him. The bad news is the tracker team are now finding blood and pus on branches as he moves through it, so infection has set in and time is running out. As I write, the ground teams are on his tracks again and as soon as they think they are close will call the chopper to assist again. The only positive coming out of this is to see so many committed people working round the clock trying to save this poor animal."
Sunday 24 March from Richard Bonham: "Yesterday was another per dawn to dusk days, the rangers are now getting exhausted. At one stage the ground team were right on the rhino. The KWS vet Jeremiah Poghorn and Ian Craig were with them, armed with dart guns, but the rhino got their wind and bolted. The rangers again refound his tracks this morning early. Poghorn and Ian are with them in the hope of an off-chance that they will be able to get close enough to put a dart in. In the meantime we are also hoping that the KWS will be able to come and support the ground team. I have not dared add up the man hours and flying time we have put in, but nothing else seems to be in our lives right now."
Sunday 24 March (again) from Richard Bonham: "So near but yet so far… the day started well, the rangers, Doc Poghorn and Ian picked up tracks and some blood spoor at 7.30 and the slow process of tracking started. By about ten, they knew they were closing in on him so they called me in the Super Cub to give some aerial support to try and spot him from the air. At about 11 there was snort from the thick bush, the rhino broke cover as had probably scented them when the wind changed, then just the receding sound of branches being crushed underfoot and we were back to square one. We regrouped, disheartened, then our spirits lifted when Rob Carr-Hartley rang to say what could the David Sheldrick Foundation do to help? Without a second's hesitation I said we need a chopper, as the KWS chopper was unavailable till tomorrow at the earliest. He said give me a minute and rang back to say he had found one and it was on its way. There was a cheer from all the rangers and morale bounced back, as we know it's our only real hope of getting the rhino visual and the chance of darting it. The chopper arrived and took up position on a hill nearby while the rangers continued to follow the tracks, ready to take off at a moment's notice and take up the chase once the rangers had spotted it. But that radio call never came and as the sunset we had to call off the chase till tomorrow. Thanks all of you at Sheldrick's for your support yet again. Start again tomorrow."
From Samar Ntalamia, Monday 25 March: "The rhino area is a beehive of activity with the search for the rhino bull with a piece of wire snare round his neck, going on in full throttle. He has been sighted a number of times, but by the time the vet comes in to dart, he will have dashed into an impenetrable thicket. There is so much heat, the acacia mellifera bush with claw-like thorns, there are wasps, bees and other insects that seem very determined to make the rhino area a no-go zone. I think this habitat is in a way adapted to only making the area livable for rhinos, which I think is a positive in a way, especially if it only selectively targeted the bad guys. We are really keeping our fingers crossed about the rhino bull. The last time he was sighted, the wire had cut in a deep groove into the flesh. One time he was sighted near Kitie water hole, the wound was oozing pus and anytime he is being tracked there is the stink of rotting flesh whenever he brushes against a tree or some bush."
From Richard Bonham, Tuesday 26 March: "Not a good day... the rangers were out again at first light to pick up tracks where they left off yesterday, but by midday had to call it off they were led onto a lava flow, which brought any chance of of tracking to an abrupt halt. The trail is now dead and we now have to start all over again and wait for this ghost to give himself away at a water point or dust wallow. This means we had to release the chopper and hope it will be available again when or if we re find the tracks.
While all this was going on we got a report of a lion hunt on the neighbouring ranch. It seems a lioness had killed two cows so they chased it down and speared it to death and in the process two warriors were mauled. In some respects one has to sympathize with these people as they are totally reliant on livestock for their livelihoods, they come from an area that has no income stream from wildlife and also where our Predator Compensation Fund does not cover. This community has approached Big Life on several occasions asking to be included in the PCF programme, but unfortunately we do not have the funds to incorporate them. If we had, there is no question this lion would not have died. KWS did an amazing job in reacting to this incident and arrested 11 of the hunting party as they also took body parts to sell and trespassed into a protected area."
From Samar Ntalamia, Wednesday 27 March: "The threat to the rhinos is reaching unprecedented levels. As the search for the rhino with a wire snare continues, a freshly set, blood - stained wire snare was found right at Kitie water hole today. This is maddening. Will keep you updated as the search continues."
From Richard Bonham, Thursday 28 March: "Despite a combined force of 30 KWS and Big Life rangers we still have not been able to locate the injured rhino again. Camera traps are out at all his usual haunts and patrols are combing the bush for tracks. We have not been helped by almost daily rain, which hinders tracking as it washes out any signs of recent movement.
KWS still has its chopper on standby as well as the Sheldricks… so we are in position to move quickly as soon as we get some tracks. In the meantime, all the rangers' leave has been cancelled till we have found him."
Update from Richard Bonham, 4 April 2013: "Ian Craig [from Northern Rangelands Trust] has just come down with the top Lewa tracker and I have got in my old hunting tracker. We nearly had him yesterday, re found his tracks and Ian was seconds from getting a dart into him, then he broke and ran, anyway we are back on him and let's hope in the next few days we get lucky."
Update from Richard Bonham, 5 April 2013: "We have had a frustrating week, the rangers going out from dawn to dusk searching for the injured rhino. There were a few moments of excitement when they thought they had contact, but it always turned out to be another rhino.
"Then yesterday, they found the tracks, confirmed by scuff marks left by the wire cable he is trailing. Ian Craig, who is camped nearby and has been patiently waiting with his dart gun, was called in by the rangers; they continued the painfully slow tracking through the dense forest. After about an hour, one of the trackers stopped and pointed at the just discernible, but unmistakeable rump of the rhino! They crept forward trying to get a clear shot as the projectile dart only has to touch the flimsiest twig to be deflected. At about 30 yards, Ian was about to take aim, but a sound or waft of wind alerted the rhino that something was not right and he thundered off into the undergrowth…. Back to square one again.
"We also tried the thermal-imaging scope this morning from the SuperCub, but yet again Mother Nature was not cooperating and covered the area in a bank of cloud. Later, as the cloud burnt off, it was too late to use the thermal scope as there were just too many ''hot spots'' as the lava warmed up. Tomorrow will try again.
"One new development the rangers have come up with is a rather unusual tactic. Some of the rhino dung was collected and sent to a witch doctor who they say will be able to weave a spell to make the rhino stop moving… Again, let's wait and see."
Update from Richard Bonham, 13 April 2013: "Our routine has been been pretty standard, up at 5.00am and then airborne in the Super Cub at first light with the thermal imaging equipment, whilst the ground teams deploy to their various sectors to search for the rhino's tracks. Then yesterday we had a break. I was flying the Cub with Ian Craig in the observer's seat operating the thermal equipment. On our first run of the area I hear an excited shout over the intercom. '' I think I have him, he's down there in the lava.'' We swoop down and sure enough there was a rhino, as we got closer it was clear we had the right rhino as around his neck was a crimson band of congealed blood. It did not look good as he hardly moved and Ian and I both thought we had found him too late and he was on his last legs, weakened and unable to move. From there on it was a blur of activity. We landed in a nearby clearing where the ground teams met us and Ian took off on foot with his dart gun believing it would be an easy job from here on. But when he got to where we had seen him there was no rhino; he had done another of his disappearing acts so Ian asked me to get in the air again to see what I could spot from the air, but again nothing as he had moved back into a thicket.
"Our only hope now was a chopper ,so I called Peter Achammer, who had so kindly volunteered his time and cost rate of his chopper to help us. I explained our situation and that the David Sheldrick Foundation had also volunteered to underwrite his cost. He said "I'll be with you in 2 hours", casting to the wind his planned weekend trip to the Mara with his family. The chopper arrived exactly two hours later and was positioned waiting for a call by the ground teams. It did not take long in coming, the rhino was spotted, a smoke canister was set off to guide Peter in. He was on it in no time and circling above in the Cub I saw the rhino galloping through the bush with the chopper hovering above it. I thought. Here goes… at long last, we've got him! Then the worst news possible came through the radio; it was Ian "It's the wrong rhino, it's not injured!"
Reading the tracks, the ground crew could see that the injured rhino had joined up with another rhino and he had held his ground whilst the other rhino had shot off – with the chopper following in hot pursuit. So the crew got back on the right tracks and here disaster nearly struck. The rhino had not gone far and exploded out of thick bush, charging straight towards them. Everyone went for a tree – the only escape from a rhino in this situation. Joseph Katoke, the senior rhino ranger, was not close enough to a tree and became the target of the rhino's charge. By luck there was a big rock just in front of Joseph, which the rhino stumbled on at full speed and tripped, casting Joseph aside like a leaf in a storm and then disappeared back into the thicket. From here on we don’t really know what happened but somehow the rhino managed to evade being spotted by the chopper and the Super Cub from the air.
"You can imagine the dispondency of the whole team. After so much effort and expense and losing him – after five long weeks of dawn to dusk searches. We have been so close and having been that close, and seen the extent of his injuries, it has made it even worse. The last two days we have been searching for him using every means possible, but have been frustrated by what normally we would call the blessing of heavy rain, making the job almost impossible. Today we are all finding it difficult to remain positive, but tomorrow is another day. We gave the game scouts a choice of taking a day off yesterday as they were exhausted – mentally and physcially – but they turned it down – saying we can't give up, we have to help this rhino. So with that attitude we still have a chance."
From Richard Bonham, 24 April 2013: "Everything went like clockwork. One of our ground teams found the injured rhino tracks and called in support on the ground. The helicopter arrived and finally, after six long weeks, the immobilization dart went in. But it was too late. The injuries caused by the snare had taken their toll and the rhino, so weak, never came round.
"As you can see from the pictures, it is astonishing that the rhino lasted so long with such a horrific wound. The wire cable had cut its way down to the bones of his neck, severing tendons and filled, by this stage, with deep infection and maggots. There was nothing anyone could have done and by his dying, at least saved us the decision of having to put him down.
"It's been a long 6 weeks, constituting at least 10,000 man hours, 20 hours of Chopper time and 35 hours of Super Cub flying time. The costs attached to all this are difficult to calculate but the whole operation has probably cost close to $35,000. We have asked ourselves (and others have also questioned us) was this investment worth trying to save one animal. The answer to this is simple – we could not give up for two reasons. The first is that none of us could live with ourselves if we had turned our backs on an animal that must have been in such agony and, secondly, this rhino bull constituted one of our best hopes of making the precarious population of Chyulu rhino viable as we only have one other breeding bull in our small population. So all our hopes now rest with him.
"We have all learnt so much from this last six weeks. Starting with the level of commitment that everyone involved has shown. KWS for the resources they invested; the Big Life rangers who worked from dawn to dusk; Ian Craig for giving up a family holiday to support and advise us; the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to finance a helicopter to come to our many becks and calls; Peter Achammer, the pilot, who on three different occasions dropped everything to fly down and help us and the list goes on. But perhaps more importantly it is now much clearer how much we have yet to do to stop another population of black rhino toppling into extinction.
"We have always known that the best protection the Chyulu rhino have is their dense and inhospitable habitat. This is illustrated so well by the fact it took us so long to find the injured bull. We also know a very important component is the use of camera traps and need to bring this to a much more sophisticated level by creating a unit who are dedicated to camera trapping - not only to monitor the rhino, but also poachers. We need to supplement the 6 camera traps we have with another 25, that will cover entry and exit points of poachers and also the more heavily used areas by rhino. This will undoubtedly be a huge deterrent as I am sure once in place, it won't take long for us to identify those responsible for the death of this rhino.
"KWS have recognized the importance of the Chyulu area as a potential strong hold for rhino in the future and plan to translocate more rhino to boost the population. However, before this can be done, there is a lot of work to do. We have to make more water available, secure the eastern boundry, increase security outposts, and fund the camera trap operation. So as usual, so much to do!
"It has been a disappointing outcome but still we would like to thank all of you who encouraged and supported us, particularly the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and KWS."
And from Samar Ntalamia: "It hit us like a block of ice - the death of the rhino bull, on Friday 19 April 2013 at 14:00, East African time. A very mournful mood enveloped the MPT/Big Life rangers on this Friday. Most sad is the fact of the death on the same day, he was darted and the spirits were uplifted that he would then survive; we really felt dejected when he died on us."
Photo credits Big Life Foundation / MPT