Translocation of rhinos: The journey to Loisaba Conservancy

The Kenya Wildlife Service capture team attempts to resuscitate a sedated rhino during a translocation exercise at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Photo credit: ROBERT GICHIRA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Kenya has protected sanctuaries that are safe havens for the Eastern black rhinos.
  • But many of these sanctuaries are now becoming victims of their own success — there are too many rhinos and limited space

Deep within the savannah’s dense vegetation roams one of Africa’s biggest browsers — the black rhino, famed for its double horn, it’s most distinctive feature but one that led to its tragic downfall. From a count of 20,000 eastern black rhinos in Kenya in 1970, the population plummeted to a low of under 300 in the mid 1980’s.

The rapid decline throughout the 1970’s was attributed to rampant poaching of rhino horn, which is believed to have medicinal properties by Asian countries.

But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Over the years, Kenya’s black rhino population has risen, standing at 1,004 in 2023. The country has the third highest rhino population in Africa. While the figure is nowhere near 20,000, the growing numbers are an indication that the country is on the right path to recovery.

Lekishon Kenana, the deputy director of Conservation Science programmes at the Kenya Wildlife Service, shares the secret to success: “An integrated multiagency approach really helped us because we worked well with arms of government for security. We were able to track poachers. Right from tracking the rhinos, monitoring them and managing populations to optimise their performance, this was collective effort, working with government, private sector, communities and NGOs.

He says the vision is to reach a population of 2,000 by 2037. But with current growing populations comes a new challenge —  adequate, secure space.

Kenya has protected sanctuaries that are safe havens for the Eastern black rhinos. But many of these sanctuaries are now becoming victims of their own success — there are too many rhinos and limited space. The 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County is one of the largest black rhino sanctuaries in East Africa.

Samuel Mutisya, the head of Research and Species Conservation at Ol Pejeta, says the rhinos are feeling the pressure: “Black rhinos in particular are very aggressive. They’re solitary and tend to be territorial and so they need sufficient space.”

If the rhinos lack the space they need, there are consequences: “There are more fights over territory. Some rhinos end up being pushed towards unsuitable spaces and therefore they can’t reproduce as they should. Even worse, some of these fights result in deaths,” notes Mr Mutisya.

It is a dangerous situation that could threaten rhino numbers once again. And so to safeguard the rhinos, Loisaba Conservancy in Laikipia set aside 50,000 acres to create the 17th black rhino sanctuary in Kenya, funded by The Nature Conservancy, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and Space for Giants, a conservation organisation working across 10 countries in Africa.

An informed decision was made to translocate a total of 21 Eastern black rhinos from overcrowded sanctuaries —  Nairobi National Park, Lewa and Ol Pejeta, to the new conservancy.

But the exercise comes with high risks. For instance in 2018, eight endangered black rhinos died after being translocated from Nairobi National Park to Tsavo East National Park. But Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Director General Erustus Kanga says this time the translocation process has been implemented in strict compliance with the International Union for Conservation of Nature .

The operation begins at Nairobi National Park —  to capture three black rhinos.

The capture team is looking for pre-identified tagged rhinos, selected to match and improve on their genetic makeups, and between ages five to 24 years, to make a viable sub-population.

A helicopter is used, making it easier to spot the rhinos. 

One rhino is spotted and darted. But in a daring escape, the rhino ends up in a river. The team responds swiftly, giving him the antidote to reverse the sedative drug in a desperate attempt to save it from drowning. Losing this rhino would be catastrophic.

Eventually, the rhino disappears into the bushes. The mission aborts due to wet weather.

A few days later, the team heads to Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

It doesn’t take long to spot a rhino as Ol Pejeta plains are largely flat, and the conservancy has the largest rhino population in Kenya. Dr Mathew Mutinda, the vet, takes aim and fires.

The ground team rushes in to deal with Ushindi, a six-year-old female.

She is surrounded by an army of attendants; with everyone performing a specific role. Her eyes are covered so that she doesn’t get too distressed from seeing people. While the drilling takes place in her horn to accommodate a transponder, her vital parameters are checked. It’s a race against time as wild animals shouldn’t be kept sedated for too long.

Ushindi is carefully revived. The crew will need all the strength they can find to contain this animal that can weigh more than two tonnes.

Luckily, the process goes on smoothly. One rhino down, two more to go.

The helicopter team goes up and soon candidate number two is on the ground. All checks are done, and it’s time to revive him. But this one is not sticking to the script. When he wakes up, he resists capture, bashing his body against the crate, trying desperately to escape while displaying his utmost displeasure. Eventually, he is pushed into the crate.

On to number three. The revival drug has been administered. But Instead of waking up, this rhino lays on the ground. Dr Isaac Lekolool, the head of capture at KWS, makes a daring and dangerous move — he gets closer to try and wake the rhino up.

But it’s not working. The rhino is unresponsive, and the crew has to perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) by jumping up and down on her chest —  the only way to revive an animal as big as this. There is utter fear that this rhino has died. But the team does not give up. Eventually, they overcome a formidable challenge —  without warning, she gets up and KWS capture officer Joseph Nderitu is flipped off. This rhino clearly wasn’t ready to move to a new home. It runs back into the plains.

Dr Lekolool confirms that the rhino did stop breathing despite being given the normal dosage of medication. He says this can happen once in a while. For Nderitu, it was just another day on the job. Thankfully he did not sustain any injuries.

It has been a busy morning full of high emotions, determination and risks – all in a bid to grow Kenya’s rhino populations.

To be continued…

Additional reporting by Robert Gichira. Watch NTV Wild Talk “Rhino Relocation Part 1” TONIGHT on NTV at 8.15pm, or on ntvkenya.co.ke