On a continent where rhino populations have been plagued for decades by illegal wildlife trade, and where poaching is just as much a threat today as it was three decades ago, the birth of a new black rhino shows there is still hope for this Critically Endangered species.
October saw the arrival of Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s 100th black rhino, making the Kenyan sanctuary’s black rhino population the most important in East Africa for conservation.
The conservancy, located in Kenya’s Laikipia County, has steadily built up its black rhino population from 20 individuals in the 1990s to the 100 it protects today. Its internationally-recognised rhino conservation programme has received key financial and technical support from Fauna & Flora International (FFI) since 2006.
The new birth has led to Ol Pejeta’s black rhinos being designated as the first Key I population in East Africa – a rating given by the IUCN’s African Rhino Specialist Group to identify populations of continental importance and help guide donor funds towards the most effective conservation efforts.
FFI’s Africa Programme Director, Dr Rob Brett, said, “As the largest population of eastern black rhino and one of the seven largest black rhino populations in Africa, Ol Pejeta’s Key I population is now in the top ranking in terms of continental importance.”
Illegal poaching – a persistent beast in our midst
Black rhino populations in Africa have been decimated from approximately 100,000 to just 2,500 individuals as a result of poaching in the 1970s and 1980s. Kenya alone saw its black rhino numbers fall below 400 in the 1980s – less than 0.02% of the original population.
With rhino horn worth more than their weight in gold and the threat of poaching rising, even animals in the most secure sanctuaries aren’t exempt from this threat. So how can we ensure that this species survives extinction?
According to Dr Brett, the strategy is all in the numbers.
“Boosting population growth through good management is the best strategy to buffer the effects of illegal poaching,” he explains. “If you don’t allow populations to grow as fast as they can, you’re left with fewer rhinos than if you failed to protect them from poaching in the first place.”
Kenyan conservancies like Ol Pejeta have helped change the game of black rhino conservation by setting up fenced, guarded sanctuaries that both protect and boost remaining populations. Today, Kenya is home to roughly 80% of Africa’s 800+ eastern black rhinos.
As Kenya’s Rhino Coordinator with the Kenya Wildlife Service in the early 1990s, Dr Brett was responsible for the original stocking of the Ol Pejeta rhino sanctuary with 20 black rhinos translocated from Nairobi National Park and Solio Ranch.
“It’s fantastic to see how the consistently high standards of protection and biological management maintained at Ol Pejeta Conservancy over two decades have resulted in this milestone for black rhinos in East Africa,” said Dr Brett. “We’re demonstrating that you can increase black rhino numbers against a background of serious threats.”
The new calf was first sighted on 1 October with its 12-year-old mother, Njeri, and is yet to be sexed or named. It’s the Conservancy’s 9th rhino birth this year.
Are we out of the woods?
Ol Pejeta’s eastern black rhinos belong to one of only three remaining subspecies of black rhino in Africa. A fourth subspecies, the western black rhino, was declared extinct by the IUCN in 2011.
Work by organisations such as Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service and FFI has helped to define a new narrative for black rhinos – one in which population growth overcomes losses from poaching. The key now will be ensuring that this trend continues to boost the species’ chances for survival.
Black rhinos are crucial components of East African savannah and woodland ecosystems, and hold enormous value for tourism industries like Kenya’s.
Although numbers have increased since the 1980s, there are still only around 5,500 black rhinos in the world. Ultimately, it is conservancies like Ol Pejeta – together with the conservationists, communities, tourists and donors who support them – that stand between this Critically Endangered species and extinction.