Poaching menace leaves only 540 rhinos in Kenya


Rhinos at Solio Ranch in Laikipia County. FILE PHOTO |

There are only 540 rhinos left in Kenya down from 20,000 in 1970, according to EarthWatch Institute, an international environmental charity organisation.

This comes on a backdrop of extensive poaching that has been witnessed in the country over the past 20 years with conservationists working round the clock to stem this vice.

On Tuesday, March 14, rhino horns from Kenya worth over Sh600 million hidden in two suitcases were impounded in Vietnam by police and customs officers.

The recent haul was disguised as regular luggage in a flight from Nairobi, where upon checks was found to be contraband cargo.

This came hot on the heels of another smuggling incident involving endangered rhinos, in Thailand from Ethiopia where 21 rhino horns worth Sh500 million was nabbed in what they said was the biggest haul in years.

These cases continue to dent conservationists’ efforts in their frantic attempts to preserve the few endangered rhinoceros species in the world.

According to the International Rhino foundation (IRF), about 500,000 rhinos roamed the earth at the beginning of the 20th century.

The number has drastically reduced to 29,000 with the demand for rhino horns very high in Asian countries where it is believed to cure cancer, fever, hangover and several other diseases.

Conservationists, however, have dismissed the claims saying that the horns lack any medicinal value.

Status symbol

The rhino horn, made of keratin (found in human hair and nails), is also used as a status symbol in Asia.

In South Africa where poachers are estimated to be killing three rhinos daily, Peter Granitz, a reporter, says rhino breeders want the government to legalise domestic trade of rhino horns to “flood the market and decrease the price of a rhino horn”.

But conservationists have dismissed the move stating that it would only exacerbate poaching activities and involve international smugglers to the country.

A kilo of rhino horn fetches about six million shillings according to black market reports.

In 1977, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned trade in rhino horns globally.

President Kenyatta burned 120 tonnes of elephant tusks last year in a move to discourage poaching but the demand for tusks and horns in Asia still threatens the five remaining species of rhinos of which four are critically endangered.

Of the 29,000 rhinos remaining in the world, 20,000 are white rhinos, Greater one-horned rhinos are 3,345, Black Rhinos are 5,055, and Sumatran rhino are 100 while Javan rhinos are only 58.

New technology

Conservationists too are investing in new technology to catch up with the poachers in a market controlled by demand rather than effectively enforced legislation, and marked with lack of political goodwill among ranger and consumer countries.

Malawi’s Liwonde National Park is the first park in Africa where drones are being tested to determine their effectiveness in the fight against poachers who, mostly are armed.

After getting support from World Wildlife Fund and a grant worth Sh500 million from Google Inc, the park has embarked on a futuristic assessment with the drone fitted with a camera, video transmitters and could fly up to eight hours with the change of battery.

Some conservationists have openly opposed the idea of using drones to curb the poaching menace saying that it is not cost-effective and would present major challenges depending on the terrain.

Mr Richard Vigne, CEO Ol-Pejeta Conservancy, which has 10 infra-red camera traps mounted along major wildlife pathways and hot-spotters used in wild animals identification, says that drones are very expensive as conservation tools and their use has not yet been legalised.

“In Kenya, the use of drones is not permitted by law,” he said in a telephone interview with the Nation on Tuesday.