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Will community management help save the black rhino from extinction? (Photos)

  • Black rhinos have declined 90 percent in three generations, and are listed as Critically Endangered.
  • The rhinos were moved from Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which has a large rhino population but limited resources.
  • Conservationists say the move will benefit the rhinos, as well as local communities by providing jobs and education opportunities.

An unprecedented action took place earlier this year at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy based in northern Kenya: the translocation of black rhinos to Sera Community Conservancy, where rhinos have been absent for 25 years. The move represents the first time in East Africa management of this endangered species is being put in the hands of community leaders instead of scientists and other conservationists.

Black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) have declined 90 percent in three generations, and are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Rhino conservationists say translocation to other areas is crucial to their survival, especially as Lewa faces pressure from sustaining a growing and healthy population in comparison to only around 630 individuals in existence across Kenya.

And so, in May, researchers moved 10 rhinos to Sera Community Conservancy.

“Sera [rhino translocation] has been a project in the making for the last five years,” said Ian Lemaiyan, rhino scientist in Lewa’s research department. “In the 80s and 90s rhino populations in Kenya had plummeted to a depressing number. [Sera is] among the last areas in northern Kenya for rhino to be translocated to save them from extinction.”

A black rhino is successfully released into his new home inside Sera. Photo courtesy of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

Sera contained this species historically and provides excellent habitat far from towns and human settlements. The target outcomes are immensely positive according to Chief Conservation Officer, Geoffery Chege, who heads the research department inside Lewa. Once rhinos establish themselves, the conservationists expect their breeding rate to rise by 5 percent annually, allowing the spread of new individuals to other conservancies in the future.

Lemaiyan believes the project will have positive outcomes for people, too.

“This will create peace in the region, thus improving living conditions of the people that are around and beyond the conservancy through job opportunities, education and better livelihoods,” he said. “Peace was one key goal in the making of this conservancy.”

Both Chege and Lemaiyan, along with many members of the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservancies agree that setting an example with Sera is the first major step in securing viable habitat for black rhinos in the future. This conservancy will serve as an illustration of how rhino translocation managed by community members can work. If proven successful, translocation efforts will continue in the near future within Sera and eventually expand to surrounding conservancies.

With its establishment back in 2001 through the help of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), support for this grand effort is immense. Sponsors range from international zoos to private philanthropists. Stakeholders believe that the success of this project depends not only on Sera community managers themselves, but on a continued dialogue between government and conservation organizations as well. This includes intense training provided by Lewa for Sera’s rangers.

“This program is cementing the role of public-private community partnership…the future success of conservation in Kenya will be based on continuing to build this relationship considering that over 60 percent of wildlife resides in areas outside of the formally protected areas, which are dominated by communities,” Chege said. “It is involving communities as active participants rather than being passive.”

According to Lemaiyan, conservation is in need of a new approach.

“Rhino conservation cannot be done through guns, boots, tough laws and being cold,” he said. “[NRT] has successfully managed to calm conflict areas and has reduced elephant and rhino poaching substantially in the last three years. This has been through provision of resources like water, creating ready markets for locals to sell their cattle and woman empowerment through arts and bead work.”

Lemaiyan said success has largely been due to an open dialogue between community leaders and members, and that continued hope for rhinos may be found through positive human involvement.

“Peace has enabled trade, trade has enabled lives to improve and with NRT’s focus on peace, black rhino conservation is bound to be successful,” he said. “The future for conservation in East Africa is gradually changing. People are the biggest threat to conservation and they too can be the biggest pivot in ensuring survival of this magnificent species.”

A black rhino is placed in a large crate to prepare for transport to Sera Community Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
Another look at rhino translocation. Photo courtesy of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
Drilling is performed to fit radio GPS collars for tracking individuals once they are released. Photo courtesy of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
Horns are removed from rhinos as a protective measure against poaching and also to prevent deaths from male territorial combat and irresponsive mates. Photo courtesy of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
After a rhino is put to sleep, a reversal drug is carefully prepared and administered. Photo courtesy of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.