Did Salt Poisoning Really Kill Eight Endangered Rhinos in Kenya?

Preliminary investigations into the deaths of eight endangered black rhinos suggest that salt poisoning is what killed them after they were transferred to a new location as part of a conservation program

Did Salt Poisoning Really Kill Eight Endangered Rhinos in Kenya?

In a conservation attempt gone horribly wrong, eight black endangered rhinos died after they were moved from the Nairobi and Nakuru National Parks, in Kenya, to a newly-constructed sanctuary in one of the country’s oldest and largest parks, the Tsavo East National Park.

Known as translocation, this process of shifting endangered wildlife species from one area to another is, more often than not, aimed at boosting depleting populations of these species.

The Kenya Ministry of Tourism said that it was temporarily discontinuing its black rhino translocation efforts following the death of eight of these animals out of eleven who were included in the WWF-Kenya-sponsored program.

“Hon. Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism & Wildlife has today directed the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to immediately suspend the ongoing translocation of black rhinos following the death of eight of them,” said the ministry in a Facebook post.

In their preliminary report, Kenya Wildlife Service investigators have attributed the rhino deaths to salt poisoning from drinking highly saline water in their new location.

“Preliminary investigations by KWS veterinary teams attribute the deaths to salt poisoning as a result of taking water of high salinity on arrival in the new environment,” the tourism ministry post read.

“These findings are consistent with cases of salt poisoning in other animal species, indicating a challenge in the translocated rhinos’ adaptation to the change from fresh water to saline water in the sanctuary,” said the ministry.

“The high salt levels lead to dehydration that triggers thirst mechanism, resulting in excess water intake of the saline water that further exacerbates the problem,” explained the ministry post.

Calling it “a major conservation tragedy,” WildlifeDirect CEO Paula Kahumbu, who is also a National Geographic explorer, wrote on her Facebook page that with the kind of experience the KWS has in undertaking “large scale translocations of rhinos,” a loss as great as this was perplexing.

“It’s surprising because Kenya (KWS) has conducted many successful large scale translocations of rhinos before,” Kahumbu wrote.

“Losing one in 15 is an acceptable loss – but never have we seen such huge losses – 50% of those moves have died!” she said, expressing her shock.

“Until now we have been considered to have one of the most successful rhino conservation programs in Africa, and we hold the world third largest population of rhinos (we have fewer than 1000 black rhino),” added the CEO of WildlifeDirect.

Concerned with the “unprecedented” mortality rate of black rhinos, and understandably so, Cabinet Secretary Balala has openly welcomed independent external investigations into these rhino deaths.

The tourism ministry’s Facebook post also said that Prof. Peter Gathumbi, a senior veterinary pathologist from the University of Nairobi, was also working independently on the case and would submit his findings in a week, or so.

Additionally, the ministry has “sought input from Dr. Markus Hoffmeyer, a Wildlife Conservationist, Rhino Veterinarian and translocation expert from South Africa.”

While the post-mortem report of the dead rhinos is being awaited, the three surviving rhinos are being given fresh water and are kept under strict observation by park officials and veterinarians, according to the post.

Pledging to make the post-mortem report public at the earliest, the ministry has assured that “disciplinary action” will be initiated against any KWS officer found guilty of “negligence or unprofessional misconduct” in the investigations.

Not even four months have passed since we lost Sudan, a northern white Rhino who happened to be the last male of his subspecies, to age-related complications.

Sudan was euthanized in March after a team of veterinarians arrived at the difficult but inevitable decision to put an end to his misery.

He was 45-years old, which in rhino terms is the equivalent of a senior citizen, and had been suffering from “age-related complications.”

News of his death reverberated across the world, touching even the hardest of hearts – one would like to believe.

Elodie Sampere, an Ol Pejeta representative called Sudan a “gentle giant,” saying that in spite of his intimidating size, he was never aggressive.

“He was a gentle giant, his personality was just amazing and given his size, a lot of people were afraid of him. But there was nothing mean about him,” Sampere said.

Reports suggested at the time that researchers had managed to save Sudan’s DNA samples, raising hopes – as faint as they were– of a revival of the subspecies.

Coming back to black rhinos, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that less than 5,400 of the subspecies are alive today, attributing the alarming decline in population, mainly, to poaching.

Poachers have long been massacring black rhinos for their horns, which is known to fetch good money in the illegal market.

Loss of habitat is another reason for the declining numbers, says WWF.
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