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Rhino Conservation Efforts Pay Off in Kenya
Rhino Conservation Efforts Pay Off in Kenya
By Wanzala Bahati Justus **
Sep 05, 2005
Islam Online, Qatar
Kenya is an East African country blessed with a huge variety of wild animal species. The country boasts the big five game animals, namely the elephant, rhino, hippopotamus, buffalo and lion. However for years, some of these animals have been subjected to heavy poaching, resulting in a drastic decline in their numbers in the entire country’s national game parks and reserves.
A Lucrative Trade
The rhino, which is classified into two sub-species, namely the black rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis, and white rhinoceros, Ceratorium simum,has borne the brunt of the poachers’ tenacity. This is because of the presence of a lucrative trade in its horn, with the white rhino teetering on the brink of extinction as a result of being persistently targeted for this illegal activity. The demand for the rhino horn is fuelled by the belief that the horn has medicinal value. Its use in making decorative dagger handles alongside ivory obtained from elephants has highly contributed to the decimation of rhinos not only in Kenya but also in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.
High unemployment, demand for agricultural land, wars, as well as political instability have equally contributed to the threat to rhino populations in some African countries where rhinos have a natural habitat.
Thomas Ole Muntet, deputy warden in charge of rhino conservation at the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), said that with a calmer temperament and a longer horn than its black counterpart, the white rhino is an easy prey for poachers, who apart from its horn also relish its meat. White rhinos weigh over 2000 kilograms and prefer grasslands or open wooded areas, being both grazers and browsers. And whereas young black rhinos tend to stay close to their mothers, young white rhinos do not, making it easier to catch them.
Although the two species are both recognized internationally as endangered, with the entire world rhino population in the wild estimated to be approximately 14,000, the situation of the white rhino has been particularly worrying. Martin Mulama, the rhino program coordinator at KWS, said that there were about 20,000 white rhinos in Africa in the 1970s. The mid 1980s witnessed their number drop by almost half.
A document published by KWS, Conservation and Management Strategy for the Black Rhino, indicates that “the black rhino has also drastically declined across Africa in both numbers and in the extent of its range. Its numbers fell from 65,000 in 1970 to around 10,000 in the early 1980s; the situation is still serious in areas where the black rhino is still found in the wild.” Kenya has 3,600 black rhinos, which are also found in West, East and South Africa.
Mulama said that animal sanctuaries started being built in Kenya in 1984 to encourage rhino breeding after the government initiated a national program dubbed ‘Save the Rhino.’
Communities Get on Board
The formulation and implementation of rhino conservation strategies involved communities, non-governmental organizations and private landowners. This was aimed at encouraging cooperation between the government, conservationists, and communities in the conservation of the rhino and other endangered animal species.
Kenya has 57 conservancies. One of these is the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which comprises 7.5 percent of the nation’s land area.
Located in the Great Rift Valley, the reserve is known throughout the world for its outstanding beauty and diverse wildlife.
The Maasai Mara, referred to commonly as the Mara, is situated in the south-western part of Kenya. It also covers 1510 km2 of the northern parts of the vast Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Tanzania, which is about 25,000 km2 in area.
It is here in the Mara that a group ranch established by the Maasai community, a pastoral community highly credited for sharing its vast acreage of land with wildlife, introduced ten white rhinos in 2001. Rhinos were obtained from Solio Ranch, located in the northern section of the Kenyan part of the Great Rift Valley, and from South Africa. The whole idea was aimed at offering visitors to the reserve an alternative to its equally endangered counterpart, the black rhino, whose population in the expansive reserve stands at 41. To undertake this noble venture, which required a colossal amount of money, the community liaised with the government.
Having been virtually wiped out in the country’s game parks, most white rhinos in Kenyan sanctuaries were imported from South Africa in the 1970s.
The 50,000 acre group ranch known as Ol Choro Oirowua (meaning hot springs in local Maasai language) is communally owned. The chairman of the group ranch, Nelson Ole Njapit, said that poaching of the black rhinos had drastically reduced their number such that visitors had difficulty sighting them. “White rhinos can be herded to where visitors are, thus relieving them from the trouble of searching for them for hours on end,” he said. Initially, three of the rhinos died after suffering from sleeping sickness (a disease caused by tse tse fly) due to lack of knowledge on how to care for them. But with time, that knowledge on was acquired. A look at the animals now reveals that they are well looked after, for they are neat, healthy and tick-free. Three other ranches have been allowed to conserve and protect wildlife in the Mara which has over 30 species of animals and over 600 species of birds excluding migratory ones. They are Koyiaki Lamek, Olosisua, and Oliopa Wildlife Trusts. Senior warden James Lesuyai from the Maasai Mara Game Reserve said that there are thirteen white rhinos in the reserve.
Harvesting the Fruits
A herd of white rhinos grazing in the Ol Choro Oirowua ranch in the Maasai Mara National Game Reserve.
Lesuyai stated that since the introduction of the white rhino, there has been an upsurge in the number of visitors to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Although Ole Njapit was reluctant to reveal the amount of money each visitor pays to see the animals, he said that they charge them accordingly and locals pay much less than foreigners.
Lesuyai pointed out that 19 percent of the revenue accrued from the reserve is ploughed back to the community. The money is invested in community projects. Deputy warden Ole Muntet is pleased by the fact that the government has given his community a chance to contribute to wildlife conservation efforts. He said that employment opportunities among his pastoral people have increased substantially. Ole Muntet stated that parents are now able to pay fees for their children and meet their daily basic needs. “We are determined to conserve wildlife at all costs, especially the rhino because we have realized its importance,” he stressed.
The group ranch, however, must contend with various limitations. The diminishing water level of the Mara River that meanders through the sanctuary, which has resulted from encroachment of human settlements on its catchment areas, does not augur well for the animals.
Muntet also said that the 30 rangers employed to ensure the security of the animals have a daunting task to perform. They must keep a constant watchful eye on poachers. They are compelled to constantly remain hawk-eyed and keenly scan the grassland within the wilderness lest the horns of the animals they guard end up being gruesomely hacked off. Most of the time rangers position themselves strategically to ascertain that there is no threat to these endangered animals. Indeed, clad in jungle jackets that blend with the environment thus providing them with an adequate camouflage, it is impossible to notice them. Some perch atop rocks while others constantly pace up and down the tall grass shifting their rifles. Yet others herd the animals.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the white rhino is viewed as one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories. Poached to near extinction in the early 1980s, sustained conservation efforts have led to an increase in their number, which now stands at about 11,000 worldwide.
Apart from Kenya, other countries where conservation strategies have played an immense role in the restoration of rhino populations are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Tanzania.
South Africa has the world’s largest population of white rhinos at over 9000, with 2000 of these in private ownership.
Kenya has about 170 white rhinos in total, the majority of which reside on private ranches and about 45 of which live in two protected national game reserves.
As the battle of conservation versus extinction rages on, the Olchoro Oirowua group ranch is conspicuous proof that cooperation between communities, governments, and other stakeholders is the right ingredient for conserving our ever-endangered biodiversity.
** Wanzala Bahati Justus is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.Your emails will be forwarded to him by contacting the editor at:ScienceTech@islam-online.net.