Tracking rhinos up to the last mile in war on poaching

Rangers track rhinos at the Lake Nakuru National Park.  PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG
Rangers track rhinos at the Lake Nakuru National Park. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG 

The terrain is harsh, mainly bushy, soggy and muddy, but a special team of rangers will not relent in their quest to keep an eye on the endangered rhinos at Lake Nakuru National Park.

The rangers are well aware that a slight distraction and poachers would pounce and cause great damage. And so each day of the year the animals stay in their watch no matter the weather conditions.

They follow the rhinos through the grazing fields and water points — a journey that takes them through dense thickets and bushy terrains that offer suitable habitats for the wild animals.

The routine patrols mean that the rangers have come to know each of the rhinos in the park by name, character, temperament and behaviour. But even with that, the rangers have to stay cautious of possible attacks from wild animals as well as aggressive rhinos that are usually unaware of their “guardian angels”.

“It would be nice if the rhinos knew that we are here to protect them. But they can’t differentiate between those that care or people seeking to harm them. All human beings are viewed as enemies,” stated Jared Omari, one of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Rhino Unit rangers.

These officers are thus forced to keep a distance, whenever possible, and monitor the animals through special binoculars allowing them to view tags (unique ear cuttings) that confirm the identity of each rhino. Those found are marked ‘present’ in the roll-call register while missing rhinos are duly recorded and sought after in subsequent patrols until they can be traced.

“We follow their life journey keenly. So we know their homes, how they live and even their health status. We can also tell who is pregnant and follow up to know if they give birth or not,” said Geoffrey Ogot, another Rhino ranger.

Endangered Southern White rhinos  at the park. PHOTO |  SARAH OOKO | NMG

Endangered Southern White rhinos at the park. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG

“Once the calf is delivered, we give it a name and embark on tracking it too throughout its lifetime.”

Samuel Tokore, park’s senior warden told the Business Daily that with the rising threat of poaching incidents, it has now become important to track rhinos day and night so as to guarantee their safety and to be certain of existing numbers.

Kenya has the third largest population of both black and white rhinos in the world, totalling to slightly more than 1,000.

Though the population is stable, with birth-rates exceeding death-rates, the figure is still a far cry from the estimated 20,000 rhinos that existed in the early 1970s.

“The poaching problem is a challenge for all African nations with rhinos but we’re slowly building the numbers,” said Martin Mulama, Rhino programme co-ordinator at the World Wildlife Fund.

As one of the ‘Big Five’ wild animals that attract tourists to Kenya’s game parks or reserves, he states that rhinos contribute immensely to the tourism industry which is a major pillar of the economy.

“This is why we need to go the extra mile to protect them. We also want to conserve rhinos for future generations, so they can enjoy them too,” says Dr Mulama.

All black and white rhinos in the country are at great risk of poaching and conservationists warn that the illegal trade could eventually wipe out these animals. Already, the northern white rhino — sub-species of white rhino — is considered extinct in the wild.

The last three remaining species — a male and its two female descendants — exist in captive at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County.

Rangers protect rhinos in bushy terrains of the Lake Nakuru National Park. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG

Rangers protect rhinos in bushy terrains of the Lake Nakuru National Park. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG

Natural breeding attempts aimed at increasing their population have failed, and scientists are now resorting to in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques as a last resort to save the species.

Dr Mulama of the WWF noted that the huge appetite for rhino horns is currently driven by rising prices in the illegal market.

Indeed, a 2015 study published in the Science Advances journal found that the trade in rhino horn had turned into a $20 billion (about Sh2 trillion) a year industry.

A kilogramme of the horn costs about $65,000 (Sh6.7 million), making it more valuable - by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine.

The demand for this wildlife product emanates from East and South Asia — mainly in Vietnam and China. And it is mainly driven by young and middle-aged professionals in search of a symbol (rhino horn) for their growing wealth and social status.

The horn is also believed to be an aphrodisiac as well as a cure for hangovers and terminal diseases such as cancer in those countries.

With the prevailing high market prices, Dr Mulama says poachers have become desperate and willing to go to great lengths to acquire the rhino horn.

As a result, rhinos have to be monitored and guarded both day and night without fail.

“While we think of ways to conserve rhinos, poachers are also devising new poaching strategies. So we can’t relax. We need to be many steps ahead of them at all times,” said Allan Maina, head of the rhino protection unit at the Lake Nakuru National Park.

Surveillance cameras keep poachers at bay. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG

Surveillance cameras keep poachers at bay. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG

Aside from daily tracking patrols by rangers, he noted that technologies such as surveillance cameras, night vision goggles, electric fence and sophisticated weapons are also helping the park to up its anti-poaching game.

Mr Tokore adds that the park’s security team also relies on useful tips or ‘Intel’ from surrounding communities on impending poaching incidents as well as information about suspicious activities by strangers or locals thought to be involved in wildlife crime. They also report any obstructions in the park’s electric fence.

“These people are our neighbours and eyes out there. We have sensitised them on the significance of conserving rhinos and brought them on board as our allies in this poaching fight,” says Mr Tokore.

According to Dr Mulama, all wild animals, whether in protected areas like parks or in nature, live within community settings.

“So they will only survive if communities allow them to. That’s why communities should be viewed as key pillars in all conservation initiatives. You need to have them on board at all times.”