Melita’s bloody, stripped carcass still lies in a dip between two hillocks, a once stately black rhino slain by poachers in early December in Kenya’s Lewa private wildlife reserve.
The two-tonne mammal is now reduced to its hindquarters, a horribly mutilated head and a spinal column stripped bare by scavengers.
Melita, who was 22, is the latest victim of a worrying surge in poaching which has hit the whole of this region of hills and high plateaux, a wildlife paradise on the flanks of majestic Mount Kenya.
Her killing followed hard on that of Stumpy, a female black rhino of 41 who was the oldest of her species in the reserve until she was gunned down in recent weeks.
Melita’s killers, three men armed with kalashnikovs, struck at nightfall at the northern perimetre of the park.
“They must have been hidden since the previous day at a look-out point to spot their prey,” ranger Steve Kisio recounted, seemingly impervious to the putrid smell rising from the carcass.
“Our teams heard shots fired around 6:30pm. After a brief exchange of fire with our men, the poachers were able to escape under cover of darkness.”
One of the three was arrested shortly afterwards thanks to an informer in the nearby town of Isiolo. The poacher was caught as he was about to flee towards the Somali border.
“This time they didn’t have time to carry off the horns, but park officials had to cut them off,” Kisio explained, saying he is saddened by this latest loss.
Some 225km north of Nairobi, the Lewa private wildlife conservancy is one of the last rhino sanctuaries in Kenya and is home to 117 of the herbivorous mammals: 64 black rhinos and 53 white rhinos>.
Kenya’s total rhino population is around 600. Lewa’s rhinos roam freely over 25 000 hectares, along with buffaloes and elephants.
Lewa, where Britain’s Prince William recently got engaged, is famous for its rhino protection work and is often quoted as a model conservancy in wildlife protection circles.
The site was created in 1995 by a family of white Kenyans but “this is the first time we have seen such a rise in poaching,” said John Pameri, head of security and chief ranger at the reserve.
“We’ve never seen anything on this scale.”
Four rhinos have been killed by poachers in the past 12 months, among them Stumpy and Melita since the end of October. The phenomenon has hit the whole of the region where 15 elephants have been killed for their ivory in the past two weeks,” Pameri told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“We feel there is a real escalation, prompted by an increasing and strong demand from the Far East, and China in particular … ,” the manager of Lewa conservancy Jonathan Moss said.
The price per kg has risen to the order of 600 000 shillings, which “is astronomical in a community where typically someone will earn 200 shillings a day.”
“So the temptation to engage in feeding that illicit demand is massive,” Moss underlined.
Some rangers make a direct link with the increased presence of Chinese nationals in the country, and in particular with the installation of Chinese companies working on large-scale road-building projects.
Pameri, for his part, was more prudent. “Obviously something is happening. There is a strong demand that we didn’t have previously,” he said.
Somalis or Kenyans of Somali origin are also said to be involved in the trade as intermediaries or brokers.
In the face of the threat, Lewa reserve has put in place a programme of night patrols, surveillance of rhinos on a daily basis, air surveillance, networks of informers and above all the involvement of local communities, described by Moss as the cornerstone of any poaching strategy.
“We can do and be sure we will do everything here in Africa to cut off the chain of supply,” said Lewa’s director.
“But at the end of the day, the only solution is to address the demand in Far East”. — Sapa-AFP