A black rhino in Zakouma National Park in Chad
Photo: African Parks - Kyle de Nobrega (AP)

In news that is appalling even by the standards of 2018, multiple outlets are reporting that eight black rhinos are dead after an attempt to translocate them to a wildlife park in southern Kenya last month.

Black rhinos are the third most endangered rhino species on Earth, with only 5,000-5,500 of the majestic creatures left, according to SaveTheRhino. The International Union of the Conservation of Nature lists the species as “critically endangered” noting that its numbers have fallen more than 97 percent since the 1960s, mostly thanks to “relentless hunting”, an experience all rhinos share.

The Guardian reports that deaths occurred as the Kenya Wildlife Service was moving 14 black rhinos from the Nairobi and Lake Nakuru national parks near Kenya’s capital to Tsavo East park in the south. In a statement, Tourism Minister Najib Balala said that a preliminary investigation indicates eight rhinos died after drinking salt-contaminated water at their new home.

Three other translocated rhinos appear to still be alive, while three more planned translocations are on pause.

The translocation of rhinos carries risks, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which notes that it often involves airlifting the animals while keeping them asleep with sedatives. But the Kenyan government has conducted numerous successful translocations in the past. As the Tourism Ministry’s statement notes, 149 rhinos were translocated between 2005 and 2017 with just eight fatalities.

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Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, called the incident “a conservation tragedy”.

“Translocations are always risky, theres’s always a number of things that can go wrong,” Ellis told Earther. “But this level of loss is pretty much unprecedented.”

Ellis cautioned that we won’t know the full story until an ongoing necropsy and investigation is completed. She said that if the rhinos did indeed die of salt poisoning, “it could have been avoided I’m sure.”

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“I’ll tell you one thing, whatever happened won’t happen again,” she said.

Paula Kahumbu, a rhino conservationist with WildlifeDirect, told the Guardian the public deserves an immediate explanation.

“Rhinos have died,” Kahumbu said. “We have to say it openly when it happens, not a week later or a month later. Something must have gone wrong, and we want to know what it is.”

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Update 11 am: This article has been updated to include new information on what Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife believes is the likely cause of death of the rhinos, information on an ongoing investigation into the matter, and comments from Susie Ellis. The death count has also been updated from seven to eight.

Update 11:45 am: An earlier version of this story alleged, based on AP reporting, that the deaths were the the result of ‘negligence’. That allegation was subsequently removed from the AP report and Earther has removed it as well.