Endangered Black rhino rescue mission ends in tragedy

It began at daybreak with the ping of a tranquilliser dart fired from a helicopter, a meticulously planned operation to save the black rhinoceros from extinction.

After decades of inhumane poaching in a region of eastern Kenya that had seen the animals’ numbers plummet from 5,000 to just 10 in the wild, the vets, rangers and conservationists were determined to get it right.

The Mirror was the only newspaper in the world invited on the 12-hour translocation journey, in which young rhinos were being moved to East Tsavo National Park, where they have been decimated by horn poaching gangs.

We travelled 300 miles with the vehicles transporting Jack, a two-tonne male, aged six, and Mwanahamisi, a four-year-old female, from the capital Nairobi along a busy highway.

They were at the vanguard of an extraordinary mission to create a new black rhino breeding population.

The hope was these two young rhinos, chosen because they came from healthy, productive lines, would produce their own children in the coming years.

But on Friday, the tragic news emerged that Jack and Mwanahamisi had died before being released back into the wild at a high-security sanctuary that has taken years to build.

So too have six other rhinos relocated from Nairobi to a temporary camp on the red-dust plains of Tsavo.

Six others brought to a separate enclosure from Nakuru, which is four hours north of Nairobi, have survived.

It is an unprecedented outcome that none of the experts could have foreseen after previous successes. No one is sure why it has gone wrong this time.

Some suspect the rhinos died because their bodies could not adapt to the change from drinking fresh water to salt water. It is not thought those in charge of the move were aware of the salt concentration in the supply.

Others fear a virus might have spread among the animals. A specialist vet has been drafted in from South Africa to lead an investigation.

I spoke to World Wildlife Fund rhino programme co-ordinator Martin Mulama, who has worked with the endangered species for 20 years.

“I am utterly devastated,” said Martin, 53. “At a time when three rhinos are killed a day by poachers, the loss is particularly painful for those of us fighting to protect them.”

He explained why conservationists were forced to adopt the high-risk relocation strategy.

He told me there were more than 70,000 black rhinos in the wild in the 1960s, but just 2,410 by 1995 because of poaching.

On October 9, 1961, the Mirror featured a shocking photograph of rhino on the front page, headlined “Doomed”.

Our ground-breaking seven-page expose followed the formation of the World Wildlife Fund a few weeks earlier, and brought vital attention to a little-known crisis.

“Doomed to disappear from the face of the earth due to Man’s FOLLY, GREED, NEGLECT,” the article continued.

“Unless something is done swiftly, animals like this rhinoceros will soon be as dead as the dodo.”

Money donated by readers helped the WWF to purchase land bordering Lake Nakuru, northern Kenya, to create a reserve in which rhinos later thrived. Yet the slaughter continued unabated elsewhere.

Between 1970 and 1992, around 96% of black rhinos were lost to gun-toting poachers who fuelled the rhino horn trade.

Backed by cartels and terror groups, they cut off the rhinos’ horns and left their carcasses to rot in the blistering sun.

The market is fed by the misguided belief in Vietnam and, increasingly, in China that rhino horn has medicinal properties.

In fact – as we saw when vets drilled a hole in Jack’s horn to fit a microchip and tracker transmitter – rhino horn is made of keratin, just like human hair and finger nails. Following earlier successful relocations across Africa, the black rhino population is above 5,000.

But with greedy poachers willing to take greater risks, despite tougher prison sentences, the battle is far from over in Kenya.

“This has taken a lot of planning because we want to be one step ahead,” Martin told me in Tsavo, which is the size of Northern Ireland.

Nothing was taken for granted during the operation we witnessed.

We were in the helicopter as the pilot hovered over Jack about 10 metres below and then a vet expertly fired the dart into his thick hide.

Within 10 minutes, Jack was on the ground and all-terrain vehicles arrived to prepare him for the journey ahead.

While one vet doused its wounds in antiseptic, two others drilled a deep hole in its horn and inserted a microchip and a transmitter device.

The transmitter would have enabled the rangers at Tsavo to detect the rhino’s movements and the chip would have helped prosecute poachers caught with the horn.

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The still slumbering rhino was then strapped up as a large crate was lowered just in front of its head.

Eleven strong men held it down just in case it kicked out. Then, with a low groaning noise, it surged forward into the crate in a sudden burst of energy.

Once the crate was firmly shut, a hydraulic arm lifted it on to a flat-bed truck and it was taken to Tsavo.

Translocations to the remote 10,000 hectare sanctuary, which is surrounded by an electric fence and has sensors to detect poachers, have been suspended after Friday’s awful news. But Martin and his colleagues at WWF still aim to increase the numbers there to 100.

Once this has happened the fences can come down and the rhinos can roam the plains as they used to.

Because even through this operation went wrong, the blame does not lie with the conservationists.

The blood is on the hands of the poachers, the horn smugglers and the buyers in the Far East. Without them, there would have been no need to uproot poor Jack and Mwanahamisi.

Conservationist’s heartache for last male white rhino

Martin Mulama brought the last four northern white rhinos from a zoo in the Czech Republic home to Kenya.

Among them was the last male Sudan, who became a symbol globally of the appalling impact of poaching and trophy hunting.

Sudan sadly died earlier this year without mating with either of the last two remaining females – meaning northern white rhinos are effectively extinct. Martin said: “The main hope always rested with the younger male, Suni, but he died in 2014. I got to know Sudan much better.

“I would look after him daily. At least he died in Africa. That gave me some solace.”

He added: “Their disappearance is mostly due to bad governance and militia groups.”

Rhino facts

● There are five species of rhino: White and Black rhinoceros from Africa; Greater one-horned rhinos, Sumatran rhino; and, the Javan Rhino.

● Around 98% of Africa’s rhinos are found in four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

● The southern white rhino sub-species is the only conservation success story. It has been helped back from under 100 in 1895 to over 20,000 in the wild today.

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