|02 April 2003
By Beatrice Mategwa, Reuters
NAKURU, Kenya ó It is mid-morning, and terrified Ernest is charging as fast as he can toward Lake Nakuru in the heart of Kenya's scenic Rift Valley, sending a flock of pink flamingos squawking into flight.
The 3-year-old white rhino is the target of wildlife authorities trying to capture him and take him to another game park hundreds of miles away. They are keen to revive the number of rhinos which were nearly wiped out in a poaching attack years ago.
The whirling rotor blades of a helicopter with game wardens aboard whips up the dust at Lake Nakuru National Park in western Kenya as it swoops over the scampering Ernest. On the ground, wardens in four-wheel-drive vehicles zero in on their target.
A team of 20 game wardens, veterinary surgeons, and animal researchers who have been chasing Ernest for nearly two miles are glad he did not end up in the lake.
"Ernest ran quite a distance. At first he was trying to run into the forest, then the chopper had to head him off from the lake, as he would have got stuck and drowned," explained John Kagwi, a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) official.
The capture team are up at 5 a.m. Their mission: to capture nine white rhinos and relocate them in wooden crates to the Meru National Park in eastern Kenya. Their day starts early because the mornings are cooler. The golden sunrise over the lake and park is a signal that the team has to start tracking the animals.
"When it's too hot, it's difficult to find them," said veterinary surgeon Elizabeth Wambwa.
Nakuru Park, which is home to more than a million flamingos, is a sanctuary in which the white rhino, not native to Kenya, thrives. It has about 50 white rhinos compared to Meru which has only a few.
The animals are bred and moved to boost rhino populations in other parks in the east African country where tourism is a leading foreign exchange earner. All the rhinos are given names and numbers so the rangers can track their heritage to prevent inbreeding. The game officials are very selective about which animals to capture, favoring young adult rhinos.
"We don't want a mother with calf below the age of 2 years, as it is still suckling. Otherwise both animals undergo stress and this is not good for their health," said Kagwi. "The mother's milk dries up, and the calf can die."
Subadults like Ernest, who weighs approximately one-and-a-half tons, can survive on their own.
The captors get a run for their money. The exercise, which should have taken a week, stretched into two as the rhinos outsmarted the wardens by hiding in dense vegetation.
"Some of the terrain they run into is not accessible by truck," said Wambwa. "The difficulties were due to the thick, tall acacia trees, which makes access to the animals difficult."
Adult white rhinos are five years old and weigh about 2.5 tons. Rhinos below 2.5 years are considered calves.
The white rhino, introduced to Kenya from South Africa more than 50 years ago, differs from the black rhino, indigenous to Kenya, in its wide square mouth, large ears, and pronounced hump. White rhinos are grazers and slightly bigger than their black cousins but less aggressive.
Richard Bagine, chief scientist at KWS, estimates there are about 190 white rhinos in Kenya compared to around 400 black ones. He says there could be about 3,100 black rhinos in Africa and 11,000 white.
"The black rhino is a critically endangered species, and obviously, it's more unique unlike the white rhino," Bagine said.
A NEW HOME, AWAY FROM HOME
Three hundred miles away from their original home at the Meru park, the nine white rhinos emerge from their crates after nearly 16 hours of travel by road. Before this new batch of nine, there were seven white rhinos: four adult males and three females.
"The arrival of rhino back in Meru is indeed an exciting turn in the history of this park; it announces a new beginning," said Mark Jenkins, Meru's senior warden. He said that in the 1970s the park boasted 300 black rhinos, all of which were killed by poachers by 1997.
Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are used to fashion costly dagger handles in the Middle East. Some say the horn is also used to make aphrodisiacs in the Far East.
Jenkins says five more white rhinos and 30 black rhinos could be introduced at Meru once Ernest and his friends settle down.
Park officials say the park has seen an increase in security to ward off poachers, with at least 100 armed wardens guarding it around the clock.
Apart from the white rhino, nearly 600 zebras, 400 impala, and 50 giraffes among others animals will also be added to the park.
Meru has started what is described as east Africa's first big project to reintroduce animals to an area laid waste by poachers, hoping to protect endangered species, revive a reserve haunted by a violent past, and boost tourist visits.
In a single incident in April 1989, poachers came at night, shot five rhinos at close range in their protected pen, then hacked off their horns.
There was only one survivor, an old bull known as Mukora, who was moved to safety at the Nakuru sanctuary before being rebased last year. In 2002, seven white rhinos, including Mukora, were moved to Meru from the Nakuru sanctuary.
"The main challenge for Ernest and the other relocated rhinos is adjusting to their new environment," Kagwi said. "They can get there and get sick because of change of vegetation, but in terms of food, there is plenty because Meru has 14 permanent rivers."