Not so long ago, rhinos presided over the African continent. When I was born, more than 20,000 black rhinos roamed wild in Kenya. They were quite literally around every corner, a hulking presence so emblematic that their likeness was made the icon for Kenya’s National Parks. Back then, it would have been impossible to predict how human greed would change all that.
A global demand for rhino horn, touted as both a medicinal cure-all and a status symbol, drove rampant poaching and decimated the species. As Daphne said, these creatures “carried a small fortune on their noses” — despite the fact that rhino horn is actually just keratin, the same material as our own fingernails. By the time I entered adulthood, less than 300 rhinos remained in the country.
However, hope springs eternal. Concerted, species-focused conservation efforts have helped bring rhinos back from the brink. While the IUCN classifies black rhinos as critically endangered and white rhinos as near threatened, there is cause for optimism. Kenya experienced two good years with virtually no rhino poaching. Worryingly, however, we are again seeing rhinos targeted for their horns.
This month, I would like to share some of the ways we continue to support these ancient creatures through our different programs. I will also touch on how rhino conservation began during the early days of David and Daphne’s time in Tsavo National Park, and how it has continued through the work of the Trust over the decades. And we begin on an uplifting note, with the news that a beautiful, healthy calf was born in Meru Rhino Sanctuary just this week!
– Angela Sheldrick
Hope for Kenya's Rhinos
Growing up in Tsavo, it was impossible for rhinos not to play a starring role in my childhood. This was a time when rhinos dominated the African landscape. They always made their presence known, in one way or another. I recall too many excursions to count where a rhino came tearing out of the bush at breakneck speed, pursuing our vehicle with head down, huffing and puffing at full gallop. While these memories are striking, the ones I remember most poignantly are of rhinos at peace: wild mothers and their calves in the shadows of a baobab sheltering from the blazing sun, magnificent bulls rubbing against Tsavo’s towering anthill mounds, others browsing along the banks of the Galana River.
These sights don’t exist anymore. At the beginning of the 20th century, well over a million rhinos roamed Africa. Poaching had always been a lurking threat, but it became a full-blown epidemic beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, as the demand for rhino horn soared. The devastation was almost beyond comprehension. By the turn of the century, poachers — and sometimes even those tasked with their protection — had killed 98 percent of Africa’s black rhino population.
In the face of such a devastating decline, the prospects of the species looked bleak. In her memoir, Daphne summed up the dire situation:
There had been around 8,000 rhinos in Tsavo out of 20,000 countrywide but by now they were mostly all gone, with just a few outliers holed up in thickets widely separated from one another, effectively a dying breed. Being fiercely territorial, the few remaining isolated survivors would never meet up to be able to perpetuate the species, so something needed to be done rapidly.
Daphne had the deepest reverence for rhinos, who she called the “last living dinosaurs.” She and David raised a number of orphaned calves during their Tsavo days, and it was through them that she learned so much about rhinos and their many idiosyncrasies. Rufus, who they rescued in the early 1960s, was the first orphaned rhino ever to have been successfully hand-reared in Kenya. He was a wonderfully mellow creature and I whiled away many happy hours perched atop his back. He was followed by the likes of Reudi, Stub, Stroppie, and Pushmi (nicknamed Hoshim), all orphans whom Daphne raised with the devotion of a mother. We later translocated Reudi, Stroppie, and Hoshim to Solio Ranch, where Reudi became a prominent breeding bull and drove the growing rhino population within the sanctuary. All three lived long and full lives, well into their late thirties, which is a good inning for a black rhino.
When Daphne said that “something needed to be done rapidly” to save the species, that solution took the form of rhino sanctuaries within key conservation areas across the country. The Trust was involved in the early formation of Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West, along with Lake Nakuru Rhino Sanctuary. More recently, we had the opportunity to support the upgrade and expansion of Meru Rhino Sanctuary, one of Kenya’s most important strongholds for the species. Through our efforts with the Kenya Wildlife Service, we more than doubled the size of the sanctuary, installed essential infrastructure, implemented security upgrades to ensure the safety of its wild occupants, and provided equipment support for the men on the ground.
Indeed, Meru Rhino Sanctuary has become a bastion of Kenya’s rhinos and a beacon of hope for the species. Covering over 80 square kilometres, this fully secured area is a refuge for an ever-growing population of more than 33 black and 86 white rhinos. Many of its founding residents were translocated from Lake Nakuru National Park’s sanctuary. Today, generations of rhinos call Meru Rhino Sanctuary home. In 2020 alone, nine calves were born within its protected borders. This year, another nine have already been born. One of them came into the world just this week, born to a female named Violet.
Earlier this year, we helped with a KWS initiative to notch several members of Tsavo’s free release rhino population. This was a complex operation, requiring a well-coordinated effort both on the ground and in the air. The first step was to identify candidates who needed notching. Over the course of five days, our fixed-wing pilots scoured Tsavo in search of viable rhinos who did not yet carry easily identifiable notches. Not all were eligible for the exercise: some were too young, others had babies in tow. As soon as the pilot identified a candidate, he reported its location to KWS ground teams, who coordinated the exercise. Our helicopter flew the KWS vet to the location where the rhino was darted from the air. The moment the patient succumbed to the anesthetic, the chopper landed and the ground team moved in.
Each rhino was given a distinctly shaped ear notch, which will serve as their personal identifier to conservation teams working in the area. To further assist with tracking, microchips were also inserted into their horns. The whole procedure was done thoughtfully and efficiently, so as to minimise stress to the animal. All told, six rhinos were notched as part of this exercise — and while it certainly disrupted their day, this simple identifier will go a long way in protecting them for decades to come. At a time when the species’ position on this planet is so precarious, every single notch counts.
Saving rhinos requires a comprehensive field presence. Our aerial teams assist KWS in the ongoing monitoring of these animals, ensuring they remain safe. On the ground, our six SWT/KWS Veterinary Units lend a helping hand across Kenya. Since inception, they have been involved in 281 cases involving rhinos, from saving the lives of would-be poaching victims to treating individuals injured in territorial fights.
Trying to save any species — let alone one as complex as rhinos — is not for the faint of heart. However, persistence pays off: Kenya now has one of the largest concentrations of rhinos in Africa. At the moment, we are raising one of the youngest members of its ranks. We rescued little Apollo in 2018, after his mother died of natural causes. He is a daily reminder of what makes rhinos so remarkable. Stoic and sensitive in equal measure, he barges around Kaluku full of bluster, but then squeaks for his Keepers come nightfall. We have successfully hand-raised 17 orphaned rhinos over the years, and each one is a revelation. I feel incredibly privileged to have lived my life around these extraordinary creatures — and humbled that the Trust plays such a role in securing their future.
Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with members of our team, please subscribe here.