We were getting together for a Lewa Wildlife Conservancy board meeting and as a newcomer I was excited to be part of this world-class operation. Lewa is a prestigious private conservation area in northern Kenya, famed for its rhinos and its annual marathon.
I had been thrilled when the chairman, Michael Joseph called me to his office last year and asked me “Will you join the Lewa board?”
I had always wanted to learn from Lewa’s enormous body of knowledge, and to contribute to its successful rhino conservation programme. He didn’t need to ask.
Now in my first board meeting meeting, Mike Watson, CEO of Lewa Conservancy, took an urgent phone call, then returned and informed us that gunshots had been heard at nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
I called Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta. He confirmed one black rhino bull was dead, his horns gone. There was no need for words to describe the anger, defeat, upset and sorrow he was feeling. It was not lost on any of us that the events at Ol Pejeta, just a few dozen kilometres away, might well have been here at Lewa.
Despite the news, we went ahead with our board meeting, which was upbeat and concluded on a positive note. But all I was thinking about was how to get to Ol Pejeta, and I invited others to come with me.
At first nobody wanted to. It would be depressing and besides, they said they all had other plans. I’m used to this reaction. Nobody wants to confront the horror of what is happening in its bloody face.
But after a few minutes of explaining why this is relevant to Lewa, I had a full car with members of board from both Kenya and the US.
None of them had ever seen a freshly butchered rhino before. I didn’t tell them that neither had I. But I’ve seen enough dead elephants to know that it’s a life-changing experience.
We drove to Ol Pejeta, where Martin Mulama and his chief of security Serem welcomed us. Their faces revealed a despondency rarely seen in conservation. We set off for the rhino under a heavy cloud of dark emotions.
Some of us stood in the back of a pick-up which crashed ahead through the bush followed closely by all the others in a Land Rover.
I asked Martin about the incident. As the vehicle bounced around, and branches caught my hair, Martin explained that gunshots were heard at 6 pm the previous evening somewhere deep inside the conservancy. Security was scrambled and the perimeter of Ol Pejeta sealed with road blocks. But it was too late. The killers had already gone.
The carcass was deep inside the middle of the 75,000 acre conservancy, and several kilometres off any track. Whoever killed this rhino knew the terrain.
We ploughed through thick bush, zigzagging around hyena holes and ant hills and following the muddy tracks of cars that had gone before us.
Then the car came to an abrupt halt and I jumped down. Serem pointed. The rhino was somewhere in the bush only a hundred metres away.
I walked quickly to where I knew he would be, anger and sadness driving me to look at the face of the lifeless animal. And there he lay, silently on his side, his massive grey body slightly bloated, his left legs suspended up in the air.
He had died in deep bush and was lying in a pool of his own blood that looked like black oil. His left eye was open staring unseeingly at us, a few flies buzzed around him. Bubbles of red frothy blood oozed his nose. His pointed white lips were slightly open.
It was hard to look at his face, his eye was staring up at me. His two horns had been cut off at the base with an extremely sharp instrument. They appeared almost surgically removed. His hornless face seemed misshapen – without his horns he hardly looked like a rhino.
Rhino killed by poachers with horns removed on Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Photograph: Paula Kahumbu
Martin explained the cuts on the rhino’s ear. Two precise notches had been cut into his ears when he was a calf to help identify him.
All the rhinos here are notched. The notches told us that this was 15 year old Sheria. Ironically his name in Kiswahili means Law. After a pause Martin said “Law is dead”.
Apart from the bloody gashes where his horns once were, he seemed unharmed. There were no other wounds. I was confused, wasn’t he shot?
If it wasn’t for Serem I would have missed the tiny bullet wounds that were almost impossible to see. He had been sprayed with bullets from an AK 47 but the entry points had closed over his thick grey-black rough skin.
Once I knew what I was looking I could see there were dozens of these wounds and I pictured the events of the night before. The deafening sound of gun shots, the acrid smell of gunfire, Sheria screaming and crashing through the bushes in a state of terror as he tried to escape the hail of bullets before he fell. I imagined that Sheria was still alive when they cut off his horns – he was probably watching them helplessly with his one open eye.
It would have taken a few minutes to cut off the horn, an eternity to Sheria. There were two murderers, one shooter and one guide. They worked quickly, silently, and escaped completely unnoticed save for the sound of bullets.
I squatted beside Sheria and leaned against his body. My arm on his massive leg, I reached out to touch his face. His body was warm, it felt as if he was still alive. I almost expected to feel him breathing.
The only smell was fresh blood. I don’t recall any sounds, the world was utterly silent. We stayed there for an hour talking in low tones, touching, feeling.
Now Sheria’s name and photograph will be removed from the rhino monitoring list for Ol Pejeta, where every rhino is sighted by security officers each day. This incident comes exactly one month after another rhino shooting. That rhino was injured and miraculously is still alive.
The escalation of poaching at Ol Pejeta is surprising because this sanctuary has some of the best rhino protection found anywhere in the world.
The population is completely fenced and anti-poaching investments include sniffer dogs, attack dogs, SAS-trained armed rangers, helicopters on standby, aircraft support, even military vehicles.
But the poachers are somehow outwitting us. They move with stealth, and are smarter and swifter. Even when they get caught they somehow subvert justice. Motivated by cash they will take huge risks – few poachers survive an encounter with KWS rangers nowadays.
Sheria was one of two rhinos poached this weekend, the other in Ngulia rhino sanctuary. These incidents are a reflection of a national and continental crisis.
Sixteen of Kenya’s rhinos have fallen to poachers in Kenya this year already. KWS says we have over 1,000 remaining but few conservationists believe these figures.
Even if we have 1,000, we could lose them all – South Africa lost over 1,000 last year alone. In Kenya all rhinos are in protected sanctuaries, yet none are safe. Rhinos are being gunned down everywhere in increasingly brazen and daring attacks in national parks and private sanctuaries like Lewa and Ol Pejeta.
Kenyans fear that the problem reflects a breakdown in governance. The people charged with protecting these invaluable creatures are turning their guns on them instead. And, the government is silent.
Kenyans are furious and determined to change things. They are now calling on the president, His Excellency Uhuru Kenyatta to declare elephants and rhinos national treasures and to make it his personal crusade to stop the poaching. Without political will, the game is over for these magnificent species.
Some people think it is too late, but we did recover from similar threats in the 1980s under President Moi’s leadership. And in Nepal, rhino poaching has been reduced to nil due to the personal interventions of President Baran Yadav. Kenyans want President Uhuru to step up to this challenge – we simply cannot afford to give up.
Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of WildlifeDirect.
This article was originally published on the Kenyan newspaper The Star