Lockdown from Tsavo West National Park

by ZSL on

A blog by Moses Wekesa, Tsavo West Field Manager

Back in January, while I was with the rhino monitoring teams, my daughter Destiny called me to invite me to her birthday party. For me birthdays were always bath days! Otherwise food on the table was all that mattered in the village. “Allow me to sing you a song for now but spare me a piece of cake until I come in April when all of us are on holiday” I replied. “Ooh yes Daddy” she shouted joining in the birthday song. Expectations were high!

Unfortunately, in March, there came a strange deadly virus and before we knew it, it was in Kenya, the land of handshake greetings!  In panic, schools, airports, companies and hotels closed, and people were advised to stay at home. Few heeded, but the majority took this as a holiday, continuing with their lifestyle: making merry, travelling and interacting with friends and relatives. To curb this, public transport was restricted, and social gatherings banned but strangely, trends of new infections showed no signs of dipping! Even the curfews imposed alongside other measures did not turn the trend around, with Mombasa and Nairobi as leading hotspots. As travel was restricted, our holiday plans were no longer feasible and my daughter’s birthday cake well……I’m not so sure if I will find it good! So, I have been restricted to our field site in Tsavo West National Park since the lockdown was imposed two months ago.

With the ban on social gatherings last month, our community livelihood trainings and human-wildlife coexistence workshops couldn’t take place as scheduled under our Darwin Initiative project. We have stayed in contact with the community groups we are supporting on the northern border of Tsavo, checking that they are alright, but project activities and benefits have all been delayed. This is likely to increase the risks to wildlife as people may need to seek other income or subsistence opportunities, such as charcoal burning, small game poaching, big game poaching or other forms of wildlife crime. Anyway, it is my hope that this situation will soon resolve so the project can resume fully. We are doing our best to monitor the situation and stay in touch with communities through this process.

Three rangers inspecting a broken rhino horn found in the park
Rangers whilst tracking a female rhino discovered that her horn, and the transmitter inside of it, had broken off.

Contrastingly, inside the National Park, operations have continued with ranger patrols being intensified on the ground and in air. As the only NGOs based inside the Park, ZSL and our local partner Tsavo Trust, support the Kenya Wildlife Service with monitoring and security of the Critically Endangered black rhino. At the end of last year, we fitted radio transmitters inside the horns of 13 rhinos to help us monitor this key population. During one of our patrols, we were able to recover a rhino horn that had broken off with the transmitter still intact. Thankfully, it wasn’t from a poaching incident.

Ranger holding a broken rhino horn
The reason her horn had detached is thought to be the result of a fight with another rhino.

 

On another occasion, a rhino that had not been sighted for a couple of weeks was successfully sighted in a new territory more than 100km away from his usual one. This was after a two-day tracking effort through thick bush.

Picture of a male black rhino
Solol, a sub-adult male black rhino whose territory shifted by approximately 100km in the Intensive Protection Zone of Tsavo West National Park, which was believed to be the result of territorial fights with a long-term dominant male.

Finally, an arrest was made in the Intensive Protection Zone of the Park (unfenced black rhino habitat totalling 2,000km2), after tracking strange human footprints in the range. It was concluded this was a honey gatherer as all he was found with was eight litres of honey and 5kg of baobab seeds. Investigation officers have since taken over just in case there is more than meets the eye; no assumptions in rhino conservation they say!

Our friends at Tsavo Trust have helped us out again – by loaning a Landcruiser in support of rhino monitoring, as our vehicle had broken down and needs spare parts that we can only get in Nairobi, which is in lockdown! This has taught us great lessons: 1) be as self-sufficient as possible and 2) the value of maintaining positive relationships with partners.
All in all, I see a win in the fight against the pandemic, but overall recovery will be gradual.

ZSL’s world leading expertise is in serious jeopardy.  As an international conservation charity, our work is only possible because of income from visitors to our two Zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, both of which are closed to the public.  When our Zoos re-open, the impact of social distancing, led by ZSL to ensure our sites are safe, will continue to restrict our much needed income.  Your support means so much to us now, enabling us to continue to protect wildlife through our research and field programmes. If you can help us, please donate now or join as a Fellow to learn more about our work:

 

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