Experts pour cold water on rhinos death narrative

They link alleged deaths to plan to legalise sale of bush meat and smear campaign against KWS

Wildlife conservationists have raised yet another conspiracy theory that the 10 rhinos reported to have died days after they were translocated to Tsavo National Park may not have died, after all; and if they did, the deaths were planned.

They linked an insidious plan to legalise sale of bush meat, spearheaded by senior State officials, to the alleged death, which some chose to call “disappearance”, of the endangered black rhinos. They say, if the plan, now at advanced stages, materialises, it will mark the “start of the death of conservation” in Kenya.

The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, 2013 allows individuals to be licensed to kill excess wild animals (culling), harvest wild game for a range of products (cropping) and sell live game (consumptive utilisation of wildlife).

The conservationists suspect the death of the rhinos in the hands of their sole custodian, Kenya Wildlife Service, is a systemic plan to allow individuals, ranchers and conservancies to practise consumptive utilisation of wildlife.

Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet secretary Najib Balala blamed the deaths on negligence by some KWS officials but the conservationists dismissed it as a “long running conspiracy to discredit the agency”.

“This is sabotage, to portray KWS as incapable and kill the organisation so as to facilitate its privatisation,” said Dr Mordecai Ogada, a carnivore ecologist and author of The big conservation lie (2017).

And Paula Kahumbu, the Wildlife Direct chief executive, termed the deaths a tragedy. “The failure of KWS can be attributed to falling standards and impact of chronic underfunding which affects capacity and staff morale,” she said, adding that underfunding of the agency has led immobility where majority of their vehicles remain poorly maintained.

It is claimed that over half of KWS vehicles are grounded and only four of its 14 winged aircraft in the parks are in proper working condition.

Recently, Balala, who has been on the spotlight over the botched translocation of rhinos, appointed former KWS director David Western to chair a task force on consumptive utilisation of wildlife. The team is mandated to revisit, review and make recommendations on consumptive utilisation and sport-hunting embargo imposed in 1977.

Balala’s move has been termed illegal and against the wildlife Act, fuelling further the conspiracy theory.

“We need a substantive head of KWS and shut down the ‘task farce’ trying to force the eating of bush meat on our country, and steal rangelands from our pastoralist brothers by making them killing fields,” said Ogada.

Absence of board

Senior ministry officials have been supporting the reintroduction of sale of game meat to boost tourism fortunes.

“I declared ‘consumptive use’ of wildlife, simply sport-hunting,” Ogada added.

According to Kenyans United Against Poaching (KUAPO), consumptive utilisation of wildlife creates loopholes for sport-hunting. “We firmly believe consumptive utilisation does not benefit conservation or communities,” it says in a statement.

During his three-year tenure as KWS boss, Dr Richard Leakey said he thrice overruled the Tsavo translocation of rhinos. He now blames KWS alleged incapacity on the three-month absence of a board, which in effect leaves key decision-making to the Balala’s docket. “Unfortunately, I am unaware of a new board and if there is one as Balala implied in his press briefing, has it met?” he asked.

Leadership wrangles at KWS escalated last July after then director general Kitili Mbathi bowed to pressure and resigned. Since then, the office has remained vacant.

KUAPO has sponsored a public petition calling on citizens and conservationists to sign to pressurise the ministry to shelve the Western’s team mandate.

Raabia Hawa executive director at Ulinzi Africa Foundation says the move may open a window for poachers to carry out their trade under the guise of cropping and culling as population control strategies. “I fear for wildlife today but I hope all is not yet lost and we can still salvage the situation,” she said.

The conservationists oppose any form of cropping, saying it is prone to corruption and mismanagement.

Schedule 10 of the Act lists the animals that can be cropped and sold live as crocodile, tortoise, chameleon, frog, lizard, ostrich, pigeon, dove, duck and guinea fowl. Snakes can only be farmed for display, venom extraction and can be exported live for breeding purposes.

More conspiracies

Though Kenya’s ‘big five’—the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino—are not on the list of animals that can be cropped, conservationists say it would be difficult to monitor the policy.

Apart from poisoning claims, it is also alleged the lorries transporting rhinos to Tsavo disappeared around Maungu and never reached Tsavo and that ministry officials displayed photos of rhinos killed in the past. There has also been a claim that the rhinos have been sold to some European conservationists in South Africa.

Up and until the truth is established, more theories are likely to be advanced to explain the rhino story.

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