afrol News, 4 September - Massive conservation efforts are finally giving results in Kenya as black rhino numbers are on the rise after years of decline from poaching and habitat loss. According to officials, the country's black rhino population stood at 539 animals at the end of 2005, compared to 428 animals in 2003.
Black rhinos were once found abundantly throughout sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of the Congo Basin. Poaching has by now limited their habitat to a patchy distribution from Cameroon in the west, to Kenya in the east and south to South Africa, and only a few years ago, it looked that wild black rhinos would disappear from Africa altogether.
For environmentalists, however, the black rhino has become a leading symbol animal - alongside with whales and elephants - causing great conservation efforts. Wildlife authorities, especially in Southern and East Africa, also have discovered the importance of the black rhino to the national tourism industry.
Both interest groups therefore during the last few weeks have celebrated the good black rhino news from Kenya, a country where rhino conservation efforts had not led to the desired results during the last decade. Habitat loss and continued poaching led to ever-declining numbers despite great efforts to turn the trend.
"This shows a healthy increase that surpassed our targets," commented Taye Teferi of the environmentalist group WWF's Eastern Africa office, based in Nairobi. "Considering the intense poaching pressure and the demand for rhino horn, this is no mean achievement," Dr Teferi proudly added.
WWF attributed the population growth to "improved rhino protection, particularly through managing existing populations and ensuring that their habitats are suitable for foraging and reproducing," according to a recent press release.
Despite the good news, the environmentalists still warn that "there is no room for complacency." Black rhinos in Kenya and other parts of Africa are still under threat, especially from poachers who see the animal's horn as a source of income. Rhino horn is in high demand in parts of Asia where it is often crushed into a powder and used for traditional medicine. In the Middle East, rhino horn is still fashioned into curved handles for ceremonial daggers.
The Kenya Wildlife Service, in cooperation with WWF's black rhino project, is working to increase Kenya's black rhino population to 1,000 by 2020 through the expansion of existing rhino sanctuaries and through the establishment of new protected areas that can accommodate future population growth.
It is estimated that in Kenya, numbers of the eastern sub-species of black rhino dropped from around 20,000 in 1970 to less than 500 animals in the early 1980s. This drastic decline was due to poaching which took place unabatedly inside and outside national parks and reserves, according to WWF.
"With increased improvement in wildlife management and monitoring, the black rhino population can continue to show a healthy growth rate for many years to come," a carefully optimistic Dr Teferi noted.
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