Earlier this month, the Kenya Wildlife Service relocated 11 critically endangered black rhinoceroses from the country’s capital to a newly created sanctuary in Tsavo East National Park. Now, the government reports, all but three are dead.
According to a statement from Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the rhinos were moved, or translocated, as part of a conservation initiative designed to start a new population line. Instead, eight of the 11 died of salt poisoning after failing to adapt from their previous habitat’s fresh water to the sanctuary’s more saline water.
The Associated Press’ Khaled Kazziha explains that the rhinos likely became dehydrated after drinking the sanctuary’s saltier water and, in a disastrous cycle, drank more of the water in hopes of satiating their thirst.
Between 1960 and 1995, black rhinos—distinguishable from white rhinos by their hooked upper lip and smaller stature—declined in number by a staggering 98 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Although conservation efforts have since brought the species’ population up from roughly 2,500 to more than 5,000, the black rhino is still classified as critically endangered.
At the end of 2017, Kenya's wildlife ministry estimated the country's black rhino population stood at roughly 745. Following the unsuccessful relocation, however, that figure has shrunk significantly.
"We have lost one percent of our rhinos in less than a week, and that's like decades of conservation effort gone," Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect, tells CNN.
The New York Times’ Julia Jacobs writes that poachers target black rhinos for their horns, which serve as status symbols and ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines. To protect its rhinos, the Kenyan government practices translocation, a process that has previously proven successful. Out of 149 rhinos relocated between 2005 and 2017, only eight died, the wildlife ministry reported.
In a statement posted on her Facebook page, Wildlife Direct’s Kahumbu noted the risks associated with translocation, writing, “Moving rhinos is complicated and risky, akin to moving gold bullion, [and] it requires extremely careful planning and security due to the value of these rare animals. But unlike gold, rhino translocation also [has] major welfare considerations, and I dread to think of the suffering that these poor animals endured before they died. We need to know what went wrong so that it never happens again.”
According to the Kenyan ministry’s statement, Peter Gathumbi, a senior veterinary pathologist at the University of Nairobi, has been tasked with carrying out an independent investigation of the botched relocation. In the meantime, all translocation efforts have been suspended, and the three surviving rhinos, who are now drinking fresh water as opposed to the sanctuary’s saline water, are being closely monitored.
“Disciplinary action will definitely be taken if the findings point towards negligence or unprofessional misconduct on the part of any KWS officers,” the statement adds.
This latest blow to Africa’s rhino population arrives shortly after the March death of Sudan, the last surviving male northern white rhino. Only two northern whites remain—a 28-year-old female named Najin and her 18-year-old daughter Fatu, both of whom are housed at a Kenyan animal conservancy under constant armed guard.
But the rhinos, both black and white, aren’t gone yet: Scientists recently announced the successful creation of hybrid northern-southern white embryos, which could—eventually—revitalize the animals’ dwindling population.