Leshakwet is a young Samburu warrior. He spends his days herding his livestock across the shimmering plains of northern Kenya in an endless search for fresh pastures and water. His ancestors would have grazed these same plains, and looked out over a very similar landscape. Except they would have been able to count several bulky silhouettes of rhino browsing in the rangeland they shared together. This young warrior has never seen a rhino; neither have any of his age-mates. These iconic creatures that once numbered 20,000 in Kenya in the 1970’s, and lived side by side with his ancestors, were reduced to just 400 in the 1990’s. They are now predominantly confined to heavily protected parks and reserves.
Yet, until recently, the communities of northern Kenya, once an area teaming with black rhino, have had very little involvement with the species’ conservation. But attitudes are starting to change, and as the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) shift their focus toward community-based conservation efforts, organisations such as the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) have been instrumental in helping marginalised communities benefit from protecting their natural resources. Sera Community Conservancy, situated between Mt. Kenya and the Ethiopian border, is one of 26 NRT conservancies, and has been chosen as the site for Kenya’s first community-owned black rhino sanctuary.
The black rhino is listed as Critically Endangered (IUCN) and on Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). The eastern black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) is endemic to Kenya, where approximately 85% of the world’s remaining wild population of this sub-species remains. Like many other conservancies in the area that would have once supported free roaming black rhino, Sera’s history is tainted with heavy poaching, tribal conflict, cattle rustling and road banditry. Since becoming an NRT member conservancy in 2001, the communities of Sera have spearheaded peace talks with neighbours and started to implement strict grazing management programmes. Rangers, employed from the local community, conduct regular anti-poaching patrols and wildlife monitoring. The effect this has had on securing peace in the area, and stabilising wildlife populations has been so significant, that in 2007 talks began on establishing a protected area for black rhino in Sera’s 3,450 square kilometres. With the backing of the Sera Conservancy Board, KWS carried out habitat, veterinary and security assessments in 2009 and 2010, and a 120 square kilometre area was designated for a fenced sanctuary.
Generous funding has now been secured from the Lundin Foundation – a philanthropic organization founded by the Lundin family, and now supported by a number of publicly traded natural resource companies, including Africa Oil. Together with funding from private philanthropists and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, completion of the sanctuary and translocation of rhinos into Sera can now take place. Plans are underway to move 15 black rhinos in the course of this year from nearby Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and elsewhere in Kenya.
The animals will be ear-notched with unique identification codes and fitted with horn-implant transmitters, to enable rangers to identify and track individuals in the field. 24 designated rhino monitoring scouts will be trained and responsible for patrolling in and around the sanctuary. They will work closely with a team of 18 armed Kenya Police Reservists, and be supported by the Kenya Wildlife Service, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, 51 Degrees and NRT security teams, which will allow them access to aircraft and tracker dogs should a poaching incident occur.
This is not the first time the communities of Sera have welcomed wildlife from elsewhere. Giraffe, impala and ostrich translocations in the past received enthusiastic community backing, and were deemed a success all round. Community engagement and ownership of the black rhino project has been a high priority for the Sera Conservancy Board and the Conservancy manager. Running the sanctuary and protecting the rhino is receiving widespread community support in the area, from people who have come to see the rhino as indispensable. It offers the potential for the Conservancy to earn substantial revenue from tourism operations, revenue which will go directly toward benefiting the whole community; in school bursaries, healthcare, and roads. It offers employment and training opportunities for local families, allowing them to depend less on volatile livestock markets. And lastly, with the long-term vision to have free roaming rhino in Sera, it offers a chance for warriors like Leshakwet to be reunited with this ancient creature that accompanied his family out in the wilderness all those generations ago. See map.