In the midst of a rhino poaching epidemic, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy has a happy problem: too many black rhinos.
So far this year, South Africa has lost 430 rhinos to poachers, more than one animal a day. The epidemic of rhino poaching, fueled by demand for black-market powdered rhino horn in Vietnam and China, is decimating rhino species worldwide. In fact, last year saw the official extinction of two rhino subspecies: the Vietnamese rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus), a subspecies of the Javan, and the western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes), a subspecies of the black.
However there is one place where rhinos still thrive. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya has found itself with a unique, but happy, problem: they have so many black rhinos, which are considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, that they need to move some to stop rhino-fights. In other words, their rhino population has hit its limit for the 25,000 hectare (62,000 acre) nonprofit protected area.
In a recent interview with Mike Watson, the CEO of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, told mongabay.com:
“Since 2000, Lewa’s black rhino population growth rate has averaged 10 percent, higher than the national target of 6 percent. However, we are beginning to see signs that the Conservancy has reached its ecological carrying capacity of rhinos. Incidences of fighting between the male rhino for females and terrain are increasing, and younger males are attempting to knock down the perimeter fence lines in hopes of finding their own territory.”
Lewa has a long history of rhino conservation, it started out as a black rhino sanctuary in the early 1980s at the height of last poaching epidemic. Currently the reserve has 74 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis), over 10 percent of Kenya’s total population, and 56 white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum). Amazingly, only five rhinos have been poached in Lewa since its inception around 30 years ago.
So, what is Lewa doing right? Here’s Watson:
“The most important factor is to have a highly organized, professional and committed security force, Lewa’s team protects over 60,000 acres, divided into 18 patrol blocks that are monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We ensure that each rhino on the conservancy is seen by one of our rangers at least every two days. If they aren’t seen after four days, we begin an aerial search of the conservancy that doesn’t end until we’ve found them.”
Watson also says that involving local communities in conservation efforts, keeping well-trained tracking dogs, having a close relationship with the Kenyan government, and constantly updating training for rangers are key to the reserve’s anti-poaching successes.
“My advice to other conservancies is that this level of security is difficult to maintain and extremely expensive; however it is the only way to safeguard these animals at this time when wildlife products, particularly rhino horn, are so highly sought-after on the black market,” he says.
To deal with their happy rhino problem, Lewa now plans to translocate around 20 rhinos to other protected areas if they can secure the funding.
Lewa is also home to more endangered African mammals than rhinos, including three important antelope species: the sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii), a rare species in Kenya; the beisa oryx (Oryx beisa), considered Near Threatened; and the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri), also considered Near Threatened. In addition, Lewa houses nearly 20 percent of the world’s Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) population, which is listed as Endangered.
“The Grevy’s zebra has suffered one of the most devastating population reductions of any African mammal,” Watson explains. “Historically found in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, Grevy’s zebras are now restricted to northern Kenya and Ethiopia. While less than 30 years ago they numbered approximately 15,000, as of today approximately 2,000 remain.”
Lewa has already moved Grevy’s zebras to three other protected areas in order to help the species stabilize and hopefully increase.
“It is Lewa’s mission to serve as a catalyst for conservation,” Watson explains. “We pioneered the community conservation model in Kenya and have achieved amazing success in wildlife management. Now, the future of Lewa lies in looking beyond our boundaries and serving as the foundation to the community-based conservation development being spearheaded across northern Kenya by our sister organization the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT).”
Interview with Mike Watson, Head Of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
Mongabay: Lewa began as a rhino sanctuary in the 1980s. What drove its creation?
Mike Watson: Before the founding of the rhino sanctuary, most of the land that makes up the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy was used as a cattle ranch and one small safari lodge, both run by the Craig family who still live on Lewa today. In the early 1980s the Craig family was approached by a woman named Anna Merz who was desperately concerned about the future of the black rhino species. At this point in time both black and white rhinos were on the brink of extinction internationally because of poaching. Between the 1970s and ’80s the number of black rhinos in Kenya dropped from approximately 20,000 to only 300 animals.
The Craig family, who already had a deep commitment to wildlife conservation, began working with Anna and set aside 5,000 acres of their ranch for rhino protection and breeding in hopes of building up the population numbers. They received permission from the Kenyan government and collected all of the rhinos they could find still living in the wild in northern Kenya and formed security and wildlife supervision teams to manage their protection. Not only was the breeding program and conservation extremely successful, it also began attracting tourists from around the world, anxious to see some of the last remaining rhinos in Kenya.
Eventually the Craig family would devote their entire 40,000 acre ranch to form the Conservancy, which would later be augmented by 8,000 acres owned by others and 14,000 acres of national forest. What made the organization’s model special from the beginning was the decision to support and involve the local communities in all activities. What eventually became the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, was committed to sharing the benefits of their conservation activities, most of which came from eco-tourism, with their neighbors. This model, now known as community conservation, was unheard of at this time.
Black Rhinos and Anti-poaching Efforts
Mongabay: Rhinos worldwide are suffering a devastating poaching crisis. What is Lewa doing right in its anti-poaching efforts?
Mike Watson: Lewa has been extremely successful in our wildlife protection efforts. While other conservancies have been faced with dozens of poaching incidents in recent years, we’ve only had five rhino poaching fatalities since our inception. Part of this has to do with the fact that we’ve been doing this for a lot longer than most conservancies. Another major factor is our strong relationship with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Lewa works closely with KWS and shares resources and expertise on a regular basis. Thirty members of Lewa’s 150-person security team are categorized as Kenya Police Reservists (KPR), meaning that they are trained and employed by Lewa, but also approved by the Kenyan government to carry firearms and respond to incidences of instability or violence throughout the region.
However, the most important factor in our security success is our relationships with the local communities. Our neighbors see Lewa as a source of economic opportunity, as well as the sponsor of their children’s schools, the nearby health clinics, adult education programs, agricultural and water development programs and so much more. They see their futures closely tied with ours, as a result if they hear of any potential poaching activities or plans, they call-in tips to our 24 hour radio room and we have a head start to intercept any potential confrontations.
Mongabay: What could other wildlife reserves learn from your experiences in anti-poaching?
Mike Watson: The most important factor is to have a highly organized, professional and committed security force. Lewa’s team protects over 60,000 acres, divided into 18 patrol blocks that are monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We ensure that each rhino on the conservancy is seen by one of our rangers at least every two days. If they aren’t seen after four days, we begin an aerial search of the conservancy that doesn’t end until we’ve found them. On top of our amazing human security force, we also have Kenya’s finest tracker dog team to respond to all incidents and pursue any persons that may have entered the conservancy with the intention of poaching. This team of tracker dogs is also regularly called-in to respond to other incidences around the country.
Part of what makes our security force so exceptional is the understanding that their training is never over; they are constantly updating their operations and skill sets. For example, most recently, each member of the KPR teams received medical training and one person on each team attended an advance field-medical course. The poaching gangs that we are up against are increasingly organized and technologically advanced, as a result we must always adapt and upgrade our operations to match this growing threat.
My advice to other conservancies is that this level of security is difficult to maintain and extremely expensive; however it is the only way to safeguard these animals at this time when wildlife products, particularly rhino horn, are so highly sought-after on the black market.
Mongabay: You’ve run into an abundance problem with the black rhinos. How do you know there are too many rhinos for Lewa?
Mike Watson: Lewa has run into a “high quality problem” as a result of our successful breeding program. Since 2000, Lewa’s black rhino population growth rate has averaged 10 percent, higher than the national target of 6 percent. However, we are beginning to see signs that the Conservancy has reached its ecological carrying capacity of rhinos. Incidences of fighting between the male rhino for females and terrain are increasing, and younger males are attempting to knock down the perimeter fence lines in hopes of finding their own territory.
Mongabay: What are your plans to deal with the overpopulation of rhinos?
Mike Watson: With this success, Lewa now has the unique problem of needing to translocate some of these animals to other conservancies where they will be kept safe, but also be able to establish their own territories and continue to breed and improve population numbers.
Lewa have received approval from KWS for the translocation operation and anticipates moving more than 20 rhinos off of Lewa to maintain the ecological carrying capacity at a manageable level where they can breed and roam freely without fighting for territory. This operation is critical to properly managing the species, but is subject to availability of funding. Ideally, we would like to remove the fence between the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and our neighbors the Borana Conservancy. However, this will only be done when we can be sure that our Security team, in partnership with Borana, can maintain our high level of security across this greater area.
Mongabay: Your organization also helps manage the black rhino population at Ol Pejeta Conservancy (the largest in East Africa). Are the challenges different here?
Mike Watson: Lewa, acting as it does as a ‘catalyst for conservation’ was instrumental in brokering a deal which saw Ol Pejeta change from a primarily cattle ranching entity to a highly successful wildlife conservancy in a very short space of time. Challenges are similar and Ol Pejeta now has a sufficiently effective security force to operate without our support, but we remain available to assist if requested.
Grevy’s Zebra and Other Species
Mongabay: What other rare species are found at Lewa?
Mike Watson: Due to its wide variety of habitat (mountains, grasslands, swamps and river valleys) Lewa is home to an extremely diverse array of wildlife. Over 440 species of birds migrate through the Conservancy every year, as well as more than 70 different mammals, including the “big five”: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. While Lewa is best known for the protection of the black rhino and Grevy’s zebra, it is also home to some lesser known, but no less impressive endangered mammals, like the sitatunga, the besia oryx, and the gerenuk.
We are also particularly proud of our elephant population. Approximately 240 elephants migrate through the Conservancy every year. Lewa was integral in the creation of an elephant migration corridor that stretches from Samburu, through Lewa and up to Mt. Kenya. The corridor was finalized in 2011 and formed in partnership with several other wildlife conservation organizations, as well as local farming businesses that gave up portions of their land for its creation. The purpose behind this corridor was to reduce human wildlife conflict and includes the world’s first elephant highway underpass. Many experts were skeptical of this program, doubting that elephants would be comfortable with, or even understand, the concept of passing beneath a freeway. But those doubts were put to rest within days of it’s opening when a bull elephant named Tony walked right through. Over the past year the corridor has been a huge success, with hundreds of elephants using the underpass, as they make their way along a historical migration route. The effects have been remarkable for diminishing pressure on habitat areas, reducing human-wildlife conflict and hopefully increasing genetic diversity within Mt Kenya’s elephant population.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about your Grevy’s zebra population?
Mike Watson: Lewa is also home to Kenya’s largest single population of Grevy’s zebra. The Grevy’s zebra has suffered one of the most devastating population reductions of any African mammal. Historically found in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, Grevy’s zebras are now restricted to northern Kenya and Ethiopia. While less than 30 years ago they numbered approximately 15,000, as of today approximately 2,000 remain. A report by the Equid Specialist Group declared that “the decline in numbers of the Grevy’s is so serious that extinction within 50 years is probably if the trend continues at the current rate.” Lewa is currently home to 19% of the world’s population of Grevy’s, so we hold a huge amount of responsibility for the species’ survival.
The Grevy’s Zebra is very different, both in appearance and behavior, from their cousins the ubiquitous common or “Burchell’s” zebra. Grevy’s zebra are taller and heavier, with trumpet shaped ears and closer-together stripes. The common Zebra stay together in close family groups. In contrast, the Grevy’s stallions are primarily solitary with the mares and foals living in “nursery herds.” There are several possible reasons why the Grevy’s zebra is so endangered in comparison to the common or Burchell’s zebra. Habitat pressure, drought, civil war, disease and poaching have all played a part in the species downfall. Also, during the 1960s and ’70s zebra were hunted for their meat, as well as to feed the demand for their skins, which were popular component of interior design in western countries.
Mongabay: What are the management issues for this species?
Mike Watson: High-tech radio-collars help us monitor zebra in inaccessible areas, allowing us to compare the movement patterns on Lewa with those of northern populations. Today, more than 90 percent of our Grevy’s zebra have been identified in our photo-identification database, using the unique stripe pattern (or “barcode”) on the right-hand side of the animal’s rump. These techniques provide valuable information such as movement patterns, resource hotspots, reproduction, foal survival and recruitment rates.
We are optimistic about the future of our Grevy’s, but survival rates of foals need to improve by at least 50 percent. Greater protection can be offered in several ways. For example controlled livestock grazing to reduce the grass cover around Grevy’s “nursery sites” to lessen the element of surprise for would-be predators.
Mongabay: Have any Grevy’s zebras been sent to other reserves?
Mike Watson: Lewa has successfully translocated Grevy’s zebra herds to several neighboring conservancies, namely Borana Conservancy, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Meru National Park. There is still a long way to go before the Grevy’s Zebra species reaches a sustainable level, but starting additional populations at these conservancies is a step in the right direction.
The Future or Lewa
Mongabay: What is the future of Lewa?
Mike Watson: It is Lewa’s mission to serve as a catalyst for conservation. We pioneered the community conservation model in Kenya and have achieved amazing success in wildlife management. Now, the future of Lewa lies in looking beyond our boundaries and serving as the foundation to the community-based conservation development being spearheaded across northern Kenya by our sister organization the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). NRT serves as an innovative partnership with communities who have set aside land for wildlife conservation. The creation of NRT has increased the amount of land under integrated conservation management to almost three million acres, which has allowed wildlife to resume migration throughout their historic natural range.
Along with our commitment to protecting the wildlife within our borders, we are also dedicated to acting as a strategic partner to both the KWS and NRT, sharing our expertise and logistical assets to support wildlife translocation operations, veterinary interventions, and armed anti-poaching patrols across northern Kenya. As our role as a catalyst for conservation continues to evolve, we have an eye toward utilizing our broad network of contacts worldwide to share developments in conservation best practices and advances with other groups across the globe.
Mongabay: What are the challenges of a private reserve versus a public one?
Mike Watson: There are many advantages to our position as a non-profit organization. We are lucky to have the oversight of a board of directors who bring expertise and insight from within Kenya, and around the world. While we work closely with the Kenyan government, we are able make our own decisions and pursue our own goals with minimal political involvement. However, we are also financially self-reliant and must raise our own funds to operate the conservancy, for which the annual operating budget is in the region of $3 million dollars a year.
Mongabay: How can people help your organization?
Mike Watson: The easiest and most rewarding way to support Lewa is by visiting us. There are five boutique-lodges nestled throughout the Conservancy and conservation fees are paid for every guest. This provides vital income, 100 percent of which is reinvested back into conservation and community programs.
While tourism revenue accounts for almost 40 percent of our income, we are also reliant on the support of individuals who believe in community conservation and the preservation of endangered species. I would encourage anyone interested in African wildlife, anti-poaching operations, or community conservation development to check out our website:www.lewa.org. If you would like to support Lewa’s work please go to:http://www.lewa.org/support-lewa/ways-to-give/to see the many options for giving. Thank you!
*Adapted from Mongabay.com
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Editor: Seychelles Pitton