Friday, October 3, 2008

Kenya Rhino back to the wild

There is a fascinating report on today’s BBC web site It is about the return of black rhino back to the wild in Kenya. For those who know the scenery it is pretty obvious where the animals were caught, and the story contains four short video clips featuring BBC reporter Karen Allen and the Kenya Wildlife Service team who did the translocations. I use the plural here, as at least two animals are shown, and they are really the stars. What is important is that the report does not contain any indication of either the capture or the release site.

The first clip has only very minor difference form my own footage shot almost 40 years ago on my own Super8 Canon camera when working with Tony Parkinson, John Seago and their team. Of course my footage suffers badly by comparison because it was shot by an amateur (me), and sat on its tiny celluloid film for 30 years before I had it transferred to a DVD, from which it was again transferred to Youtube. You can see the old footage here on my web page.

And note some important differences. First, my own footage opens with a rhino being pulled over with a long lariat that was placed around its neck with a bamboo pole. Second,. And probably the only thing that is better than the BBC stuff, is the shot down the barrel of my dart gun as a rhino is about to be darted. I got the shot by taping the camera to the fore-end of the gun with what was then called Gaffer’s Tape (now known as Duct Tape). The reason that the ground team were there with the lariat was that the country we were working in in the early 1970s, not 30 km from the BBC spot, was riddled with deep luggahs (dry gullies that fill with water during the rainy season). They are often almost invisible in the long grass and as we worked from the helicopter we would warn the ground crew and they could prevent a darted rhino from falling into one, which would have been disastrous.

Here you can find the new footage of the darting, for comparison.

Then comes the monitoring. In the BBC report it has been edited into a second short clip Other than the placement of the transmitter and the cutting off of the horn the process is identical to my old footage (it could hardly be any different.)

It is in the 3rd BBC clip that things differ a lot from the old techniques. Since the 70s it has been shown that captured rhino do much better if they are allowed to stand during the transport phase. After all the processing they are given a partial antidote and allowed to stand in a somewhat dazed state. At least that is what everyone hopes they will be. They are then pulled into a waiting crate, where the trap door is quickly dropped before the final dose of antidote is given. I have been involved in this process with White Rhino when working with Dr. J.P (Cobus) Raath in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The first of these three pictures shows a rhino struggling to get to his feet a few minutes after that partial dose. That's me at the left in the second picture, and everyone is puling hard in the third one.

The BBC footage, which shows a little of this technique, is on the 3rd clip here.

When I was translocating rhino we often had to take them large distances – up to 100 km in some cases, and so we held them in bomas (corrals) before we moved them. At that time there were about 20,000 black rhino in Kenya alone and some rhino were not released but were captured for sale to zoos. That was show Tony & John earned their fees. Now there are less than 600 left in the country, victims of a poaching war, for reasons that you can read about in several places, including chapter 15 of The Trouble With Lions. I hope nobody thinks it has anything to do with aphrodisiacs for old oriental men. That is a print media myth that sells articles, (it’s an eye-catching headline, sex, animals and humans) but is far from the truth. The real reasons relate to traditional oriental medicine and human vanity.

In this new story I am pretty sure that the release sites were within 50 km of the capture site, and so release could be immediate, and much better for the rhino, as you can see here in the very short 4th clip.

I never did get any of my own shots of a release, but the front cover of Wrestling With Rhinos show Peter Beard’s extraordinary photo of just such an event. It contains all the drama in one shot.

As the BBC site clearly sates, this effort shows a real desire on the part of the KWS, and their helpers, the Zoological Society of London, to reverse an ugly trend. Let’s wish them al the very best in the efforts.

However, no one should imagine that wildlife poaching has ceased in Kenya. The Lewa Conservancy web site carries this story dated Sept 16th of the arrest of four poachers who have allegedly been involved in ivory and rhino poaching for years.


Julian Easton said...

Dear Jerry,
Could you tell me how many elephants you translocated to akagera and from where, as I was thinking of using it as a possible source population for reintroductions to nyungwe in rwanda.
Were there elephants already there before you translocated them?

Thank you

Jerry Haigh said...

Hi Jules,
Thanks for your interest.
This is a multilayered issue.

If you want details you can either find them in our paper Haigh, J.C., Parker, I.S.C., Parkinson, D.D. and Archer, A.L., 1979. An Elephant Extermination. Environmental Conservation, 6(4), 305 310, or for a less formal account you can go to chapters 29 and 30 of Wrestling With Rhinos (ECW Press 2002)

To give you the simple answer, we moved 27 juvenile elephants from 2 areas in Rwanda. The first was at Karama, the second Rwinzoka, on the shores of the Nyaboronbgo river.
The last I heard of them was that the exercise had been a “success’, in that the group had bred and even had some 3rd generation animals in it.

However, before anyone moves elephants around in Rwanda I would think that some serious thought needs to be given to the reason we had to do the cull and translocation 30 odd years ago. It was because the elephants had already started to create havoc for the human populations and were destroying crops and homes. In 1975 the human population was about 4.5 million. It is now over 10 million. Moving elephants back in amongst the people would need some very careful consideration.

Of course the other issues are the techniques and the cost. It cannot be considered humane or correct to do what we did almost 35 years ago.
Nowadays elephant translocations involve whole family groups (or single males). There have been a couple of recent such exercises in Kenya and the South Africans are experienced at this as well.
The cost is enormous, as a great deal of heavy machinery is needed. Would the money be better used in some other way?