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Kenya’s black rhino unlikely victim of al-Shabaab militants

By Staff Reporter

NAIROBI, KENYA - DECEMBER 10: A female Black Rhino stands on December 10, 2007 in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)©Getty

Among the rolling hills of Kenya’s Laikipia district, far from the battlegrounds of al-Shabaab militants in southern Somalia, wanders one of the jihadi group’s more unlikely victims: the rhinoceros.

A precipitous drop in Kenyan tourism due to terror attacks by the al-Qaeda-linked militants has hammered receipts in the safari destination, undermining costly anti-poaching efforts.

Of all the “big five” game animals favoured by sightseers, rhino are the hardest and most expensive to protect – costing an estimated $20m a year across the country’s 15 rhino sanctuaries.

Al-Shabaab may be partly to blame for poaching: some monitoring bodies allege the group is involved in smuggling lucrative rhino horn, whose value today outstrips that of gold or cocaine. Last year, poachers killed close to 5 per cent of Kenya’s remaining 1,032 rhino, twice the number of the previous year.

Anti-poaching teams armed with everything from night vision and thermal imaging to pump-action shotguns and sniper rifles regularly camp out overnight, sometimes supported by drones, and practise a shoot-to-kill policy.

“The principal source of income to fund these costs has historically come from tourism, but recent insecurity and the imposition of VAT on conservation fees, has led to an 11.2 per cent reduction in tourism in 2013,” says Rhino Sanctuary Status, an August report prepared by four private rhino sanctuaries. “There is now a significant funding gap as a result.”

The timing could not be worse: just as tourism receipts are collapsing, the price of conservation is spiking. The same report says the cost of protecting rhino has risen 50 per cent in the past two years.

Protecting the animals has become so expensive and dangerous that three sanctuaries in Kenya have recently given up their rhino. Rare black rhino, territorial by nature, also require more space than non-indigenous white rhino.

At Borana, a high-end safari lodge, the impact is stark. Lodge tourism receipts are 23 per cent under budget this year, leaving almost nothing once costs are deducted.

“We’re way down – if tourism numbers continue to decline, then the commercial rug has been pulled out from under us,” says Michael Dyer, managing director of Borana, which is now struggling to cope with conservation costs to protect its 19 black rhino. “Because of the decline in tourism we have tried to boost occupancy up by relying on the local market, discounting rates, but it doesn’t really help revenue streams.”

Although western travel advisories warn against travel to parts of Kenya’s coastline rather than safari destinations, many international tourists appear to be staying away altogether. The deficit is so bad the Dyer family has taken on additional debt of $500,000 to fund rhino protection.

Borana is one of a number of private rhino sanctuaries lobbying the government for special tax-free status. “More than 55 per cent of rhinos in Kenya are now on private sanctuaries and it is a worrying trend that some are closing down because they can’t cope with the expense – we are trying to see how the others can stay open,” says Martin Mulama, chairman of Kenya’s Association of Private Land Rhino Sanctuaries.

Borana and neighbouring Lewa, where 16 rhino have been killed by poachers since 2008, are this month joining forces, the culmination of a five-year conservation effort.

Tearing down the electrified fence between them will create 94,000 acres of much-needed habitat for 77 black rhino – which they hope will soon breed past the 100-mark – and create the largest black rhino sanctuary in the northern hemisphere. But it comes with additional costs: Borana must hike wages 40 per cent to match those of Lewa. And it is risky: guards, as well as rhino, are killed.

“We are fighting a full-on war,” says Mr Dyer, who has been shot at by cattle rustlers in the past and hesitated before introducing rhino last year.

“It was a big decision to bring in rhino – someone will get killed eventually: it could be the guys; it could be me; it could be family,” he says.

“But if we don’t do it, who is going to do it?”

-Financial Times


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