Eight critically endangered black rhinoceroses are dead in Kenya after an attempt to move them from the capital to a national park hundreds of kilometers away, the government said Friday, calling the toll "unprecedented" in more than one decade of such transfers.
Preliminary investigations point to salt poisoning as rhinos attempted to adapt to salt water in their new home, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife said in a statement. He suspended the continuous movement of other rhinos and said that the survivors were being monitored closely.
Losing the rhinoceroses is "a complete disaster," said Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect.
Conservationists in Africa have been working hard to protect the black rhino subspecies from poachers who chase them by their horns to supply an illegal Asian market.
In moving a group of 11 rhinos to the newly created Tsavo East National Park in Nairobi last month, the Kenya Wildlife Service said it hoped to increase the population there. The government agency has not said how the rhinoceroses died. Fourteen of the animals were to be moved in total.
"Disciplinary action will definitely be taken" if an investigation into the deaths indicates negligence on the part of agency staff, the Wildlife Ministry said.
Kenya is home to 80 percent of the remaining global population of black rhinos, said Kahumbu.
"Moving rhinos is complicated, similar to the movement of gold ingots, requires extremely careful planning and safety due to the value of these rare animals," he said in a statement. "Rhino translocations also have important welfare considerations and I'm afraid to think about the suffering these poor animals endured before they died."
The transportation of wildlife is a strategy used by conservationists to help build, or even recover, animal populations. In May, six black rhinoceroses were moved from South Africa to Chad, restoring the species to the country in northern central Africa almost half a century after it was wiped out.
Kenya transported 149 rhinoceroses between 2005 and 2017 with eight deaths, said the Ministry of Wildlife.
According to WWF, black rhino populations declined drastically in the 20th century, mainly at the hands of European hunters and settlers. Between 1960 and 1995, the quantities decreased by 98 percent to less than 2,500.
Since then, the species has recovered, although it remains extremely threatened. In addition to poaching, animals also face loss of habitat.
African Parks, a conservation group based in Johannesburg, said earlier this year that there are less than 25,000 rhinos in African nature, of which about 20 percent are black rhinos and other white rhinos.
In another major setback for conservation, the last remaining white rhinoceros on the planet died in March in Kenya, leaving conservationists struggling to save that subspecies using in vitro fertilization.
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