Kenya wildlife minister faces resignation calls after 10 rhino die in disastrous relocation project

Kenya’s wildlife minister is under pressure to resign following the death of ten rhinos last month in a calamitous relocation project, after it emerged that he had been warned of the dangers of the project on three separate occasions.

Najib Balala, the Cabinet Secretary for Wildlife and Tourism, had sought to deflect blame for one of the greatest disasters in Kenyan conservation history onto the wildlife officials in charge of the relocation operation.

But Mr Balala’s future was called into question after the country’s most prominent conservationist, Richard Leakey, revealed that the ministry had repeatedly been told that moving the rhinos could kill them.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) moved 11 black rhino to a sanctuary in the east of the country last month in an operation meant to preserve the critically endangered species.

Ten died of starvation and dehydration, with investigations showing that the rhinos suffered salt poisoning because water sources in the sanctuary had higher saline levels than the animals could cope with.

There are fears the surviving rhino could also die after it was mauled by a lion. Lions rarely attack rhinos unless they are ailing, suggesting that the surviving beast had also been weakened as a result of the move.

Mr Leakey, who chaired the KWS board until its term of office expired in April, said that he and his colleagues had rejected a proposal to relocate the rhino “three times over three years.”

“On each occasion the board noted that there was deep concern about the lack of vegetation in the sanctuary that could sustain rhino and also the real issue of available and safe water,” he said.

“The board directed that no translocation should occur unless these two matters were adequately addressed.”

Mr Leakey also suggested that the wildlife ministry might have broken Kenyan law if it ordered the translocation, an operation that should only be authorised by the KWS board.

Mr Balala had previously suggested that a new board had sanctioned the operation. However, no details of who sits on the new board have been disclosed and Mr Leakey cast doubt on whether one had been constituted at all.

The day before Mr Leakey’s intervention, the minister — who has yet to respond to the claims — blamed the rhino deaths on the “negligence” of the rangers and vets who oversaw the relocation. “They didn’t take their work seriously,” he told reporters. “They were casual in their job.”

Mr Leakey’s claims prompted outrage on Twitter, with many Kenyans demanding that the minister step down.