The animals, which were moved from Nairobi National Park and Nakuru National Park to a sanctuary in Tsavo East National Park, died due to salt poisoning, according to Kenya Wildlife Service veterinarians.
The park’s water supply has significantly higher levels of salt than the rhinos were used to, and eight of the 11 translocated rhinos died shortly after drinking it, according to a statement issued by Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.
National Geographic explorer Paula Kahumbu, CEO of the organization WildlifeDirect, calls the deaths “a major conservation tragedy, not just for Kenya but for all rhinos.”
“It’s surprising because [Kenya Wildlife Service] has conducted many successful large scale translocations of rhinos before. Losing one in 15 is an acceptable loss—but never have we seen such huge losses,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
“It’s a major step back,” Cathy Dean, chief executive of the UK-based charity Save the Rhino, told National Geographic. Dean says losing this many rhinos will have a “massive” conservation implications, as losing even eight animals out of such a small remaining population can disrupt breeding and translocation efforts.
Due to decades of poaching for rhino horn, the African mammal has declined nearly 98 percent since 1960, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are roughly 5,000 black rhinos left in Africa, 745 of which live in Kenya, according to the country’s wildlife service. (Read about the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa.)
The wildlife service noted that “this kind of mortality rate is unprecedented,” citing the fact that only eight of the 149 rhinos translocated by the Kenyan government over the last 13 years died during or after transport.
The park’s veterinary and management teams are closely monitoring the three surviving rhinos, which have been given fresh water. Government officials say an investigation is underway and that “disciplinary action will definitely be taken, if the findings point towards negligence or unprofessional misconduct on the part of any [Kenya Wildlife Service] officers.”
“We need to learn from this disaster and make sure we never repeat it,” Dean says.
Kahumbu agrees: “Moving rhinos is complicated and risky. ... It requires extremely careful planning and security due to the value of these rare animals.”
“We need to know what went wrong so that it never happens again.”
The rhinos were being moved to Tsavo East National Park to establish a black rhino population. The ministry had plans to translocate three more rhinos to the park but has since suspended them. (See heart-wrenching photos of rhinos fighting to survive.)
Mohamed Awer, CEO of the conservation group WWF-Kenya, said in a statement the organization is “devastated” that the translocation, funded in part by the WWF, resulted in the deaths of so many endangered rhinos.
“Translocating wild animals of this size is a complex, challenging undertaking and not without risk. However, range expansion projects to increase black rhinos numbers are a recognised cornerstone of conservation efforts meaning translocations are crucial for future generations.”
Awer said the organization will support an investigation by the Kenyan government into the circumstances surrounding the rhino deaths.