Conservationists struggle to repair cracks in Kenya’s most secure rhino sanctuary

Matterhorn's two-year old calf was found alive with a bullet in his side. Credit: Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

When a gram of rhino horn fetches more than its weight in gold or cocaine, how do you protect the animals from poaching? This is the question staff at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy—a 62,000-acre wildlife sanctuary in northern Kenya—is currently grappling with. The facility is widely regarded as one of the safest havens for rhinos and elephants in Africa, yet just two weeks ago Lewa lost its 5th rhino in its 30 years of operation, a pregnant female named Matterhorn.

“I still feel like we’ve got one of the best—if not the best—security set ups in Kenya,” said Mike Watson, a former British Army officer and Lewa’s current CEO. “But we’re still losing rhinos,” he added.

Up until 2009, Lewa had not lost a single rhino to poaching. Its 150 person team includes 30 Kenyan police reservists armed by the government and expertly trained in wildlife security at Lewa. Thanks to its partnerships with the Kenyan government, the wildlife service, the police and local communities, Lewa seemed like a haven for rhinos amidst a continent in crisis.

But about two years ago, the poachers changed tactics. Rather than sneaking into the reserve in early morning, the groups of 3 to 5 armed men began making their raids under the cover of darkness, usually around 1 a.m. They find the animal, shoot it, hack off its horn and exit the area as quickly as possible. Across the larger Kenyan landscape, elephants are poached on a daily basis, but within Lewa’s premises—which houses over 26 large species, including the area’s only populations of white and black rhinos—it’s only the rhinos that poachers dare target. Watson said there’s been known cases of leaked inside information as to the whereabouts of rhinos on Lewa’s property.

Lewa staff discover Matterhorn's carcass. Credit: Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

In response to this new threat, Lewa has increased its surveillance to 24 hours a day, and the staff has caught numerous poachers. Many of the men they nab are involved in local criminal fraternities, with links to drug trafficking, robberies and people smuggling often emerging alongside the poaching charges.  When enough evidence exists, the criminals are prosecuted. A group of men were caught at the end of 2011, with one recently receiving a 10-year prison sentence. Unfortunately, this victory was an unusual case, requiring a huge amount of effort and commitment to build a case that stood up in court in order to garner a sentence of that magnitude. Too often, criminals escape with little more than a fine totaling a mere fraction of a few grams of rhino horn.

In East and South Africa, everyone knows the value of rhino horn and elephant ivory, driven by Asia’s insatiable appetite for the products, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Kenya’s levels of poaching are not as rampant as South Africa’s, but the country also does not have the same numbers of rhinos to lose. Kenya’s approximately 900 rhinos pale in comparison to South Africa’s 20,000. Still, both countries are losing rhinos at an alarming rate, with 448 lost to South Africa and 27 lost to Kenya in 2011. Lewa holds around 11 percent of Kenya’s critically endangered black rhinos and 14 percent of its near-threatened white rhinos.

The situation wasn’t always like this. Watson first arrived at Lewa in 1995, stopping over during an epic motorcycle tour of South Africa to London. He liked what he saw and stuck around. At the time, poaching was almost unheard of. The biggest gripes came from local communities who perceived animals like elephants as nuisances. Over the past 15 to 20 years, Watson and his colleagues helped reverse this perception and build up a broad community conservation initiative amongst the region’s approximately 100,000 inhabitants.  Communities of 4,000 to 5,000 people living on a couple hundred acres of land own branch titles to that land, and Lewa encouraged them to begin managing their property under conservation principles. As incentive, the organization helped broker a partnership between the communities and tourism operators, enabling locals to derive a certain amount of revenue per tourist. In addition to the concession fees, local people enjoy enhanced employment opportunities, greater security and more development projects for health and educational facilities. One community made $200,000 last year from conservation. “These aren’t just a few scraps thrown to them now and then,” Watson said. “They own this process.”

If fewer and fewer elephants and other big animals occupy the landscape, however, tourism will dry up. “Not only are poachers threatening elephants and other species, but in the short term they’re threatening a proven, successful community conservation initiative,” he said.

Mike Watson with his staff at the annual Christmas party. Credit: Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

Lewa is stepping up its intelligence gathering efforts, hoping to prevent poachers from killing animals ahead of time rather than simply following up on crimes. The organization is also investing in new technologies, like night vision equipment and small remote cameras that pick up movement and send photos to a centralized operating room.

What’s to be done in the long term, however, is still a matter of debate. It is possible to humanely dehorn a rhino every 2 to 3 years, and some conservation economists and officials in South Africa are advocating for sustainable harvest and trade of rhino horn in order to satiate the Asian market demand.  In East Africa, however, people are less convinced. “It might look and sound good on paper and the figures might make sense, but in reality regulating rhino horn and piecing it together at the continental and global level may well prove to be a challenge,” Watson said. “There are so many variables and unknowns that you’ll only know if it’s succeeding if you try it, and if it doesn’t succeed it could be a disaster,” he added.

Ultimately, reducing market demand would be a surefire way to ensure the survival of rhinos, elephants and countless other species, but conservationists are pushing against thousands of years of Chinese culture and tradition. “Until such a time as one reduces the market, we’ll be fighting an uphill battle,” Watson said.

At Lewa, staff are busy bolstering security and also nursing Matterhorn’s orphaned 2-year old calf back to health. Though Matterhorn’s unborn calf was slain along with its mother, her other calf escaped with his life—just barely. He caught a bullet in his side, but is still able to stand and eat. He’s expected to survive, although the bullet is still lodged inside of him, a permanent memento of his encounter with the poachers.

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