Kenya’s Worst Rhino Massacre Was the Work of People Trying to Save the Species
NAIROBI—You may have missed World Rhino Day last month. Even here in Kenya, many people did. Such events rarely raise the public’s consciousness the way they should, and this year, certainly, there was not much to celebrate.
Kenya is home to many of the rhinos surviving in the wild, but it is still reeling from a veritable massacre in July and August at one of the country’s most famous national parks: 11 eastern black rhinos dead out of a population of 750. And those responsible for the shocking deaths are not poachers, but the very same organizations charged with saving the species: World Wildlife Fund-Kenya, Kenya Wildlife Service, and Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.
The tragedy began on July 13, when Kenyans woke to the news that at least seven black rhinos had died mysteriously, not killed by hunters. The death toll reached 11 in less than six weeks. All had lost their lives in the same sanctuary,where they had been relocated, precisely, in order to ensure the species’ survival.
Some conservationists called this the worst tragedy in the history of wildlife conservation.
Paula Kahumba, CEO of the non-profit organization Wildlife Direct,told reportersthis was “a complete disaster.” Many people might think of the loss as incalculable, but for those less sensitive to the fate of wildlife, Kahumba put a figure on it: “Each animal is worth about a million dollars. It’s like $7 million just vanished into thin air.”
As of early 2018, due to anti-poaching efforts and to conservationists’ work to grow viable rhino populations, the World Wildlife Fund counted the population at 750. The new Rhino Conservation Strategy (2017-2021) of the Kenya Wildlife Service hopes to achieve 5 percent growth and attain a population of 830 by 2021. The mandate of almost all rhino-centric conservation organizations—state or non-state—is keep those numbers growing.
Given that the numbers are so low to begin with, it might seem hard to imagine that there are places in this country with too many rhinos. But establishing new populations in less densely populated areas is central to programs meant to reduce the risk of extinction. On its website, World Wildlife Fund–Kenya, often known as WWF-K or WWF-Kenya, says it wants “to spur breeding of black rhinos through securing new and safe habitats and minimizing loss,” because “experts agree that the number of rhinos in sanctuaries must be kept below carrying capacity by removing surplus rhino.”
When Kenya’s parks get congested, animals are sent to other areas in a process known as translocation. They are captured, transported, and released.
Nairobi National Park, in sight of the capital’s skyline, has proved to be a prime rhino breeding sanctuary in Kenya. Rhino reproduce there at an optimum rate, producing one calf per female every two years. But the Nairobi park can no longer sustain the growing population, and neither can the Lake Nakuru National Park, which has a similarly successful breeding record.
Another aim of translocations is to move endangered wildlife away from poachers, but the core purpose is to get them far away enough from other rhino populations to establish, over time, new bloodlines and genetically diverse populations.
“Rhinos may look like four-legged battle tanks, but in some respects they are remarkably fragile.”
The balance has to be just right. If there are too many animals in a confined area they either don’t mate or become inbred. If there are too few in a vast park they may not find each other to mate.
In 2011 WWF-Kenya teamed up with the Kenya Wildlife Service to establish a rhino sanctuary in Tsavo East. The service had a proven track record. It hadsuccessfully moved 149 rhinobetween 2005 and 2017. Only eight of these died, and over a long period of time.
Moving rhino to establish a founder population in the 5,307-square-mile Tsavo East seemed like a good idea. It’s big sky country, with a lot of room for the beasts to move around. But rhinos, while they may look like four-legged battle tanks, are in some respects remarkably fragile, and water quality is, for them, a critical issue.
In 2011 an Environmental Impact Assessment was conducted in the Tsavo East sanctuary to determine the suitability of this habitat, especially its water and vegetation. The result showed high levels of salt in the water.
So, between 2013 and 2015, with funding from WWF-Kenya, the wildlife service hired a private supplier to drill for fresh water in the proposed sanctuary. WWF-Kenya then brought the $1 million proposal for a translocation to the Kenya Wildlife Service board, at the time chaired by renowned paleontologist and wildlife warrior Dr. Richard Leakey.
Leakey vetoed the project three times, on the grounds that Tsavo East had suffered a long drought and the habitat was unsuitable—its water had tested too salty for rhino consumption. Leakey recommended that WWF-Kenya return with the proposal when conditions improved.
Despite the high salinity of the water WWF-Kenya went ahead and continued building the sanctuary, with a 38-square-mile rhino territory enclosed by a solar-powered electric fence. Within the sanctuary WWF-Kenya established a boma (a more localized holding enclosure), where vets and rangers would look after translocated rhino for two weeks before releasing them into free range.
Paul Gathitu, a spokesperson for the Kenya Wildlife Service,saysa lot of planning was done to ensure the rhinos’ safety in their new habitat. “There has to be sufficient food, it has to be correct in terms of weather, in terms of water that is available, so all those factors had to be put in place including even the issue of security of the rhinos themselves. All that put together, we felt that the conditions were about right.”
But the 2011 assessment showing high salinity was never revised. Moreover, Dr. Benson Kibore, chairman of Kenya’s Union of Veterinary Practitioners (UVP), said tests of the water in drilled boreholes were conducted multiple times, up to May of 2018, and these tests revealed a saline content five times higher than in 2011.
In April of 2018, the three-year tenure of the KWS board of directors, including Leakey, terminated. Soon afterward WWF-Kenya’s preparations for the translocation were set in motion. TheBigMove, as it was billed, would be a feather in the caps of WWF-Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Service.
On June 25, @WWF_Kenya tweeted: “Our family has grown and we need to move some members to a new home. Stay with us as we kick off the journey tomorrow at 7 am #TheBigMove.”
The morning after the tweets went out, a crowd of politicians, senior staff from WWF-K, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and media gathered to launch The Big Move of 14 rhino to the new sanctuary at Tsavo East.
The kickoff’s location was symbolic: the site in Nairobi National Park were, in 1989, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and Richard Leakey torched tons of confiscated elephant tusks and rhino horn. Another such dramatic bonfire blazed in 2016.
These events ignited worldwide focus on efforts in Kenya to stop the slaughter of elephants and rhinos, and to help their populations grow once again.
“Today marks the coming together of a dream that has been in the making for over seven years,” Najib Balala, Kenya’s Minister of Tourism and Wildlife, declared as The Big Move began.
An unspoken message was that Richard Leakey was out of the way. Those now in control of Kenya’s wildlife establishment could work free of the constraints Leakey had imposed.
At the event, WWF-Kenya presented the park with two Land Cruisers, three motorbikes, night vision cameras, tents, radio equipment, binoculars and boots. “This donation of two vehicles and other vital equipment.” Minister Balala added, “will go a long way in ensuring that our rangers on the front line are adequately equipped to carry out their duties.”
The first three rhino slated to travel werecamera- and social media-ready, complete with names—Carol, Cheptei, and Bolt. After the fanfare, KWS sharpshooters darted animals with a light tranquilizer, and the animals were pushed into crates. They then left the park and sped along a bumpy road 200 miles to their faraway new home. Cheptei, Carol, and Bolt’s arrival at the boma was the subject of confident tweets put out by the translocation’s organizers at WWF-Kenya on June 27: “Carol, Cheptei and Bolt arrived safely at Tsavo late last night they are among 14 black rhino forming founder population.”
No news seemed like good news.
The “hear-hear” tweets indicate that there was, at least at this stage, communication between KWS and WWF-K.The remaining 11 rhino were scheduled to travel, in stages, over the succeeding two weeks.
By all accounts the capture and transport phases of the translocation were going well. Veterinarians are typically in charge of these, while rangers and wardens are tasked with caring for the animals on their arrival at the release site, including the adaptation period in the boma.
According to a report made later by the Union of Veterinary Practitioners, the senior warden for Tsavo East accompanied the first lot of rhino, bringing enough fresh vegetation and water to last six days. (The Daily Beast’s repeated efforts to communicate with this senior warden have been unsuccessful.)
Rangers assert that they provided fresh leafy vegetation—called “lucerne” and also “sugarcane straws”—and fresh water from a 500-1,000 gallon water container known as a “bowser.”
Dr. Kibore from the Union of Veterinary Practitioners reports that a week after release, the warden called KWS headquarters to report peculiar behavior by the rhinos, and dispatched rangers with the bowser to the Galana River, several miles from the sanctuary over rough terrain, to bring more fresh water. En route, the bowser broke.
Rangersand wardens, observing increased water intake among the rhinos and hyper-urination, suspected snakebite.
Four days passed before those dispatched with the bowser returned with water.Kibore cites the failure of rangers to act promptly on the broken bowser as the crucial lapse in the operation. The lack of adequate food and fresh water in the boma would have killed the rhino eventually, Kibore notes, “but full-blown salt water will kill you first.”
On the sixth day after their arrival, the veterinarians’ union report notes that rangers decided to give water from a nearby borehole. But the nearby borehole was the one that was making the rhinos sick to begin with. On July 3, seven days after the first three rhinos arrived, Bolt died. When vets arrived and scanned the corpse for snakebites, they couldn’t find any. On the eighth day in the boma, two more rhinos displayed symptoms like those seen in Bolt. These two also died, as vets tried to treat them. Supposing that snake bite was killing the translocated rhinos, the vets released all but two of the remaining animals from the boma. The veterinarian union report indicates the rhinos’ dehydration was attributable to trauma. “With trauma and stress of undergoing the capture process the rhinos feared the newly placed water points, thinking it was a trap.” Kibore explains that the borehole water points are lined with black plastic, about which the rhino are skittish. He said “the key reason” the animals died, noted on the postmortem, was dehydration.
By the time the vets understood that, sure enough, salt water was the problem, it was too late. According to Kibore, the warden wasn’t aware that rhinos could die from a high intake of salt water.
While a vet was present, he was coming and going between the sanctuary and the other parks, where the rhino embarked. Kibore told The Daily Beast that vets are usually not in attendance during the initial days following release because the wildlife service’s budget doesn’t provide for that kind of post-translocation care.
By July 13 a total of at least seven rhinos had died, and news of the calamity broke to the outside world. Yet there seems to have been little communication in the intervening days among rangers, wardens, and vets in the sanctuary or at KWS headquarters.
Minister Balala, who was outside Kenya at the time, claims to have learned of the deaths only when the public did, and only via media coverage.
Leakey asserts that whatever communications there were between the boma and Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters have been suppressed. He adds that he has reason to think the rangers at Tsavo East had not even been informed that the rhino would be arriving.
Balala quickly issued a statement announcing suspension of the translocation of the three remaining rhino from Lake Nakuru. On his return to Kenya, he held apress conferenceand announced that he had called for an independent investigation. He latercited an independent post-mortem reportstating that salt poisoning may have caused the rhinos to perish as they struggled to adapt to saltier water in their new home. Within six weeks of the translocation’s launch, all the rhinos moved to Tsavo East were dead. One of these was attacked, post-translocation, by lions. Though this death has been attributed to the attack, that rhino, given its dehydration and impaired health, was likely in no shape to fight. The irony that more rhino died in the translocation than were killed by poachers in 2017 was not lost on informed observers, particularly wildlife conservationists.
The public, in Kenya and outside, demanded answers. With many Kenyans agitating for Balala to resign, the bloodletting shifted, figuratively at least, to the human side of the equation.
Conservationists have blamed the rhino deaths on greed, negligence and the nebulous, growing role of NGOs in the wildlife conservation sector.Angry Kenyans wanted proof that the dead rhinos’ horns had not found their way into the illegal trade. They demanded photos of the corpses with the horns in place. At its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya Wildlife service displayed what it claimed were all 22 horns—two cut off each rhino corpse.The Kenyan government has compiled but not yet released results of an initial inquiry, which sources say states that there were areas of “clear negligence by KWS.”Both Mohamed Awer, CEO of WWF-Kenya, and Minister Balalaacknowledgednegligence in thetranslocation.The operation’s outcome came as no surprise to Leakey, who cites saltwater and mismanagement as prime ingredients in a recipe for disaster. He places responsibility squarely with WWF-Kenya and on Balala, whom he referred to as CS, or Cabinet Secretary Balala.
The Kenya Wildlife Service “would have only acted on orders of either the [KWS] board or the CS,” Leakey told The Daily Beast. “They would not have gone to WWF, so the must have given them the go ahead.”
Balala, Awer, and their organizations insist that Leakey, when chair of KWS, had given “provisional approval” for the translocation.Leakey denies having given any approval, provisional or otherwise. “Over the life of this project, one of the major donors, WWF, had variously expressed its views about the non-completion of the sanctuary,” Leakey said in a press statement. Speaking with The Daily Beast, he added, “The emergency, I think, was that WWF spent a lot of money building this sanctuary. They wanted the rhinos released in it so they could tell donors ‘job done,’ ‘ribbon tied,’ ‘more money please.’”
“WWF have nolegalculpability here,” Leakey observes. “But this does raise questions about foreign assistance to countries. As in: who is the tail and who is the dog?”
“WWF needs to be accountable and put the animals’ welfare before finances,” says Dr Kibore.
Leakey said that Balala had implied that a new KWS board of directors had met, which was a surprise since as far as he was aware a board hadn’t been established. “The absence of a board for the three months has left weighty decisions of the kind concerning discipline and direction entirely with the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife… It is unfortunate that the Minister’s statement failed to reflect the fundamentals behind this tragedy and perhaps dig deeper into the real problems at KWS.”
This absence of a KWS board, said Leakey, provided the window of opportunity for WWF-Kenya to push the translocation through with Minister Balala. Leakey explained to The Daily Beast that KWS is a parastatal organization structured like the military. “You cannot run that sort of military organization without chain of command, if you break the chain of command at the top.”
Claus Mortensen, who manages Mugie Ranch in Laikipia,moved 23 rhino from Laikipia to Ruma National Parkin 2012. He worked closely with several of the wildlife service officers involved in the Tsavo East translocation. “They’re very competent in the job of the transferring,” he said. Since the 2012 move, only two of those rhino have been lost to poaching. “Rhinos are incredibly tough,” Mortensen says. “They lived all these millions of years. But they’re also super-fragile, especially when they get man-handled.” His conclusion about the fatal Tsavo move: “It’s not the transferring that killed them, it was an oversight of looking carefully at the water supply.”
PARIS — The mind plays strange tricks sometimes, especially after a tragedy. When I sat down to write this story about the Saudi regime’s homicidal obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood, the first person I thought I’d call was Jamal Khashoggi. For more than 20 years I phoned him or met with him, even smoked the occasional water pipe with him, as I looked for a better understanding of his country, its people, its leaders, and the Middle East. We often disagreed, but he almost always gave me fresh insights into the major figures of the region, starting with Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and the political trends, especially the explosion of hope that was called theArab Springin 2011. He would be just the man to talk to about the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood, because he knew both sides of that bitter relationship so well.
And then, of course, I realized that Jamal is dead, murdered precisely because he knew too much.
Although the stories keep changing, there is now no doubt that 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the power in front of his decrepit father’s throne, had put out word to his minions that he wanted Khashoggi silenced, andthe hit-team allegedly understood that as “wanted dead or alive.”But the [petro]buck stops with MBS, as bin Salman’s called. He’s responsible for a gruesome murder just as Henry II was responsible for the murder of Thomas Becket when he said, “Who will rid me of that meddlesome priest?” In this case, a meddlesome journalist.
There is more to Khashoggi’s murder than the question of press freedom, however. His death holds the key to understanding the political forces that have helped turn the Middle East from a region of hope seven years ago to one of brutal repression and ongoing slaughter today. Which brings us back to the question of the Saudis’ fear and hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regional rivalries of those who support it and those who oppose it, and the game of thrones in the House of Saud itself. Khashoggi was not central to any of those conflicts, but his career implicated him, fatally, in all of them.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a benign political organization, but neither is it Terror Incorporated. It was created in the 1920s and developed in the 1930s and ‘40s as an Islamic alternative to the secular fascist and communist ideologies that dominated revolutionary anti-colonial movements at the time. From those other political organizations the Brotherhood learned the values of a tight structure, party discipline, and secrecy, with a public face devoted to conventional political activity—when possible—and a clandestine branch that resorted to violence if that appeared useful.
In the novelSugar Street, Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz sketched a vivid portrait of a Brotherhood activist spouting the group’s political credo in Egypt during World War II. “Islam is a creed, a way of worship, a nation and a nationality, a religion, a state, a form of spirituality, a Holy Book, and a sword,” says the Brotherhood preacher. “Let us prepare for a prolonged struggle. Our mission is not to Egypt alone but to all Muslims worldwide. It will not be successful until Egypt and all other Islamic nations have accepted these Quranic principles in common. We shall not put our weapons away until the Quran has become a constitution for all Believers.”
For several decades after World War II, the Brotherhood’s movement was eclipsed by Arab nationalism, which became the dominant political current in the region, and secular dictators moved to crush the organization. But the movement found support among the increasingly embattled monarchies of the Gulf, including and especially Saudi Arabia, where the rule of the king is based on his custodianship of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. At the height of the Cold War, monarchies saw the Brotherhood as a helpful antidote to the threat of communist-led or Soviet-allied movements and ideologies.
By the 1980s, several of the region’s rulers were using the Brotherhood as a tool to weaken or destroy secular opposition. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat courted them, then moved against them, and paid with his life in 1981, murdered by members of a group originally tied to the Brotherhood. Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, then spent three decades in power manipulating the Brotherhood as an opposition force, outlawing the party as such, but allowing its known members to run for office in the toothless legislature, where they formed a significant bloc and did a lot of talking.
Jordan’s King Hussein played a similar game, but went further, giving clandestine support to members of the Brotherhood waging a covert war against Syrian tyrant Hafez al-Assad—a rebellion largely destroyed in 1982 when Assad’s brother killed tens of thousands of people in the Brotherhood stronghold of Hama.
“Over the decades the Brotherhood, like communists and fascists before them, ‘adapt to individual environments.’”
—Lorenzo Vidino, George Washington University
Even Israel got in on the action, initially giving Hamas, the Brotherhood branch among the Palestinians, tacit support as opposition to the left-leaning Palestine Liberation Organization (although PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat once identified with the Brotherhood himself).
The Saudi royals, too, thought the Brotherhood could be bought off and manipulated for their own ends. “Over the years the relationship between the Saudis and the Brotherhood ebbed and flowed,” says Lorenzo Vidino, an expert on extremism at George Washington University and one of the foremost scholars in the U.S. studying the Brotherhood’s history and activities.
Over the decades factions of the Brotherhood, like communists and fascists before them, “adapted to individual environments,” says Vidino. In different countries it took on different characteristics. Thus Hamas, or its military wing, is easily labeled as terrorist by most definitions, while Ennahda in Tunisia, which used to be called terrorist by the ousted Ben Ali regime, has behaved as a responsible political party in a complex democratic environment. To the extent that Jamal Khashoggi identified with the Brotherhood, that was the current he espoused. But democracy, precisely, is what Mohammed bin Salman fears.
Vidino traces the Saudis’ intense hostility toward the Brotherhood to the uprisings that swept through much of the Arab world in 2011. “The Saudis together with the Emiratis saw it as a threat to their own power,” says Vidino.
Other regimes in the region thought they could use the Brotherhood to extend their influence. First among these was the powerful government in Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has such longstanding ties to the Islamist movement that some scholars refer to his elected government as “Brotherhood 2.0.” Also hoping to ride the Brotherhood wave was tiny, ultra-rich Qatar, whose leaders had used their vast natural gas wealth and their popular satellite television channel, Al Jazeera, to project themselves on the world stage and, they hoped, buy some protection from their aggressive Saudi neighbors. As one senior Qatari official told me back in 2013, “The future of Qatar is soft power.” After 2011, Jazeera’s Arabic channel frequently appeared to propagandize in the Brotherhood’s favor as much as, say, Fox News does in Trump’s.
Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, and the birthplace of the Brotherhood, became a test case. Although Jamal Khashoggi often identified the organization with the idealistic hopes of the peaceful popular uprising that brought down the Mubarak dynasty, in fact the Egyptian Brotherhood had not taken part. Its leaders had a modus vivendi they understood with Mubarak, and it was unclear what the idealists in Tahrir Square, or the military tolerating them, might do.
After the dictator fell and elections were called, however, the Brotherhood made its move, using its party organization and discipline, as well as its perennial slogan, “Islam is the solution,” to put its man Mohamed Morsi in the presidential palace and its people in complete control of the government. Or so it thought.
In Syria, meanwhile, the Brotherhood believed it could and should lead the popular uprising against the Assad dynasty. That had been its role 30 years earlier, and it had paid mightily.
For more than a year, it looked like the Brotherhood’s various branches might sweep to power across the unsettled Arab world, and the Obama administration, for want of serious alternatives, was inclined to go with the flow.
But then the Saudis struck back.
In the summer of 2013, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the commander of the Egyptian armed forces, led a military coup with substantial popular support against the conspicuously inept Brotherhood government, which had proved quickly that Islam was not really the “solution” for much of anything.
Al-Sissi had once been the Egyptian military attaché in Riyadh, where he had many connections, and the Saudis quickly poured money into Egypt to shore up his new regime. At the same time, he declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and launched a campaign of ruthless repression. Within weeks of the coup, the Egyptian military attacked two camps of Brotherhood protesters and slaughtered hundreds.
In Syria, the efforts to organize a credible political opposition to President Bashar al-Assad proved virtually impossible as the Qataris and Turks backed the Brotherhood while the Saudis continued their vehement opposition. But that does not mean that Riyadh supported moderate secular forces. Far from it. The Saudis still wanted to play a major role bringing down the Syrian regime allied to another arch enemy, the government of Iran. So the Saudis put their weight behind ultra-conservative Salafis, thinking they might be easier to control than the Muslim Brothers.
Riyadh is “okay with quietist Salafism,” says Vidino. But the Salafis’ religious extremism quickly shaded over into the thinking of groups like the al Qaeda spinoff called the Nusra Front. Amid all the infighting, little progress was made against Assad, and there to exploit the chaos was the so-called Islamic State (which Assadpartially supported in its early days).
Then, in January 2015, at the height of all this regional turmoil, the aged and infirm Salman bin Abdelaziz ascended to the throne of Saudi Arabia. His son, Mohammed bin Salman, began taking into his own hands virtually all the reins of power, making bold decisions about reforming the Saudi economy, taking small measures to give the impression he might liberalize society—and moving to intimidate or otherwise neutralize anyone who might challenge his power.
“Pressure was brought to bear on many of the richest and most powerful princes in the kingdom.”
Saudi Arabia is a country named after one family, the al Saud, and while there is nothing remotely democratic about the government, within the family itself with its thousands of princes there traditionally has been an effort to find consensus. Every king up to now has been a son of the nation’s founder, Abdelaziz bin Saud, and thus a brother or half brother of the other kings.
When Salman took over, he finally named successors from the next generation. His nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, then 57 and well known for his role fighting terrorism, became crown prince. His son, Mohammed bin Salman, became deputy crown prince. But bin Nayef’s position between the king and his favorite son clearly was untenable. As one Saudi close to the royals put it: “Between the onion and the skin there is only the stink.”
Bin Nayef was pushed out in 2017.The New York Timesreportedthat during an end-of-Ramadan gathering at the palace he “was told he was going to meet the king and was led into another room, where royal court officials took away his phones and pressured him to give up his posts as crown prince and interior minister. … At first, he refused. But as the night wore on, the prince, a diabetic who suffers from the effects of a 2009 assassination attempt by a suicide bomber, grew tired.” Royal court officials meanwhile called around to other princes saying bin Nayef had a drug problem and was unfit to be king.