Elizabeth Wamba talks to Born Free Kenya’s Country Manager Tim Oloo about the plight of rhinos and their conservation in Kenya.


You have been a rhino scientist for many years now. What is the history of rhino populations?

Rhinos have had a very rough time over the years. All rhino species. It is believed that, long ago, they roamed in their millions across Africa and Asia. At the beginning of the 20th Century, there were about 500,000. Then white hunters came in and killed them by the tens of thousands, mainly for sport. With time, poachers turned their guns on rhinos as their horn was fetching tidy sums on the Asian black market.  By 1970, the global rhino population was 70,000. It was free fall.

For example, in the late 1970’s, a census found some 100 black rhinos along a belt of land around Manyani Gate to the Luggards Falls in Tsavo Park in Kenya. By mid-1980’s, not a single rhino was left standing in that belt. During patrols in Tsavo, you would hardly ever come across a rhino. A countrywide survey in 1984 revealed we had only 280 black rhinos left in the country, down from about 2,000 in 1970.

The white rhinos’ range from yesteryear was Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and the Southern Africa states. Today, there are none in Uganda and Sudan. 

By late 1980’s, rhinos appeared to be doomed.


What was your experience when you joined the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS)?

Not long after joining the KWS Research Division in 1986, I got a field training opportunity on species monitoring and bush craft at a ranch in Laikipia, to the north west of Mount Kenya. The training was meant to be brief but, with time, it got extended. I developed a special interest in black rhinos and conducted a study on their feeding habits. In those two years I spent at Laikipia, I saw rhinos only five times and yet I was in the bush daily.

By then Nairobi Park had about 60 individuals and these needed to be secured as they were vulnerable to human threat.  It was then I decided that I must do something for rhino conservation.


What did you do?

After relocating to Nairobi and observing the rhinos in Nairobi Park, I knew it was possible to secure these iconic species. I helped set up a monitoring team in all the KWS parks harbouring rhinos.


What happened thereafter?

The decline in black rhino populations led to a spirited campaign to rescue them from imminent doom, and a sanctuary model strategy was formulated. Basically the rhinos would be placed in an area where they could be well secured. The eight areas identified were Nairobi, Nakuru, Aberdares and Tsavo West National Parks and Solio, Ol Jogi, Lewa and Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancies.

Black rhinos had been decimated by 99% in Kenya. In some rangelands like the whole of West Africa, they were wiped out completely.


What did it take to protect the remaining rhinos?

Three words – passion, dedication, sacrifice. The monitoring team worked tirelessly to secure those rhinos. By the time I left KWS in 2000, there were about 420 black rhinos countrywide, up from 300 in 1988/9.

Following the success of the sanctuary model in the National Parks, the private ranches also adopted it, thus increasing our capacity for the species.


How are they faring now?

Today there are some 29,000 rhinos in the wild, of which slightly above 5,000 are black rhino. The Sumatra rhino number just 100 and the Javan a precarious 60. Only five species exist.

While in Kenya we have continued to have breeding success and, due to effective protection, numbers are increasing, last year alone, South Africa lost more than 1000 rhinos to poachers which translates to almost three rhinos killed daily to feed the demand in the illegal market.

Some 260 pieces of rhino horn were sold in August in South Africa. The same landowner – the biggest private rhino owner in the world - hopes to sell more harvested horn in the future. What are your thoughts on this?

The news of that sale going through hit me like a thunderbolt! Having worked to save these rhinos and seeing the decline over time, it is depressing for such an event to happen. That sale is likely to have serious implications for rhinos not only in South Africa but other range states, like Kenya.

Firstly, rhino populations are still critically low. And in the wild, poachers don’t select. They kill whatever animal they come across. For rhinos, this could be the prime females or a dominant bull thus reducing population growth.

Secondly, since the populations are still very vulnerable, should there be a threat like a disease outbreak, rhinos can easily be wiped out.

Thirdly, rhino horn is lucrative in the black market and it is easy to corrupt some of those who protect them. An emerging challenge is that rhino horn is now being cut, just like elephant ivory, making it harder to detect during smuggling.

Selling rhino horn - currently this is possible legally in South Africa on the domestic market – and advocating for the legalisation of international trade represents a massive threat to the species. We have experience of what happens when you create a legal market and the illegal trade uses it as a ‘cover’.


Why is rhino horn so lucrative in the black market?

Myths! That it cures cancer? Hogwash! That it is an aphrodisiac, more lies.  Or that it cures some common ailments like fever.  Some people also take it or stash it as a status symbol.  It’s all vanity! What many people are not aware of is rhino horn is made up of keratin, similar to your finger nails or mass of hair. If it does indeed cure cancer and other ailments, shouldn’t we then harvest and chew fingernails by the tonnes to fight the scourge?  Certainly we should not open up legal trade and add another risk to the future of the species.


What needs to be done to secure and conserve rhinos?

It boils down mainly to four things. One, protect them from poachers. Two, reduce demand for the horn in Asia. Three, stop land sub-division or encroachment into wildlife habitats. Rhinos are sensitive breeders. When land is fragmented, they become smaller, isolated populations which limits breeding. Four, disrupt the transit routes that illegal wildlife crime operatives use to move the horn from source country to market. These networks are vulnerable to infiltration and dismantling. Five, political goodwill is necessary to crackdown on corruption, enforce strict wildlife laws and ensure commitment to treaties. Trafficking of wildlife trophies should have the same magnitude as other major economic crimes and those convicted should receive deterrent custodial sentencing, punitive fines and the seizure of assets.  It should be high risk for criminal networks hoping to gain massive rewards from our wildlife.


Why should anyone care that rhinos are critically endangered?

Rhinos are like dinosaurs – the oldest group of mammals.  When a rhino is protected, it means other wildlife are also protected. They are a key species just as the elephants, lions and more. Humans are the biggest threat to wildlife and the environment. If these key species are wiped out, we will not only be poorer in terms of biodiversity, but also aggrieved that we did not put in more effort when we had the chance. We are killing, eating and destroying other species at an alarming rate. Yet our survival also depends on them.

So as we globally march for rhinos, lions and elephants tomorrow, remember there is a lot more we can do for our wildlife. Be their voice. Advocate for the protection of wildlife. Conserve their habitats and environment. Support conservation projects including community-based ones. 

We need them as much as they need us!


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