New home for Kenya’s black rhinos

Poaching doesn’t just kill rhinos, it diminishes the habitat available to those left alive, because the spiralling cost of security is forcing some landowners to remove the animals from their land. Yet in Kenya’s Laikipia district, one ranch is taking the brave decision to buck the trend and introduce rhinos, hopefully in 2013. We spoke to Michael Dyer, owner of Borana ranch, about how and why he’s taking on this expensive commitment.

Black rhinos on neighbouring Lewa conservancy

What’s prompted you to introduce rhinos to Borana?

Lewa [a neighbouring conservancy] has reached its carrying capacity. If we don’t provide the habitat, Lewa’s stuck, it can’t expand. You’d never get to the dream metapopulation of well over 100 black rhino, which is where you see birth rates increasing dramatically. We used to have eight places that had rhinos in Laikipia, but three have removed their rhinos, so there’s been a net loss of habitat. Borana is the only place that’s going to be new.

How will they be introduced?

We’ll pull down the fence with Lewa, but it’ll take too long for them to make proper use of the new range – it’s such a big expansion, you’re adding another 32,000 acres on a flat survey, a lot more if you take account of the hills and valleys. So the idea is to translocate some animals. The experts would like to see an initial introduction of about 20 rhinos. People are thinking we could easily host between 60 and 80 black rhino on Borana with the habitat and browse we’ve got.

How much is this going to cost you?

The contribution we’re making to the rhino programme is to provide the land, the roads, the infrastructure and water, and the costs of running scouts: we’ll have our own armed guys here with Kenya Police Reservist status. The cost will rise exponentially. Just to run this as a secure wildlife area for all your plains game without the rhino and have sufficient security for your tourists, you’re probably spending about $100,000 a year and that’ll increase to possibly $500,000 a year. It’s a huge rise.

Black rhino on neighbouring Lewa conservancy

How will you fund this?

We’re trying to underwrite the conservation costs through commerce. The way we’ve done that is we’ve brought in some partners, who, for the right to build a house and operate commercially on Borana, commit to underwriting our budget annually, along with us. So we have nine shareholders, of which our company takes up five shares. We work up the budget and then we commit to underwriting the core conservation costs. First prize for us is at least 90 per cent or more of our core conservation costs are coming from commerce, from systems we’ve put in play.

In order to provide the security it’s quite a quantum leap at the moment because of the high value of the horn, but it’s not a leap you can’t make if you put in the right systems. The key is underwriting the core costs. If you can do that it’s not so difficult to raise the little bits extra you need for things like community welfare. Quite a lot of this community stuff we’ve been doing for years anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. Part of the costs of having rhino is having good relationships with your community neighbours.

We don’t want to be donor dependent. With all these donations comes endless reporting. Sometimes people make available such large amounts of money that it’s impossible to resist, but with that comes some steerage. Once you get into institutional funding from government you can really end up being steered in a direction you might not want necessarily to go into, and you have to go through such huge processes.

Our parent company is very robust financially, and that’s given us the opportunity to set aside this land and commit it to the conservation. Our shareholders are happy for that to happen provided they don’t have to dig into their pockets to make it work.

Do you hope to attract more tourists as a result of the rhino introduction?

We’re going to really try to strengthen the links between tourism and rhino conservation. But I don’t think people would necessarily come here just because of rhinos. The reasons for coming here are more about exclusivity, we’ve got 3,000 acres per bed, we can walk, take people mountain biking, horse riding, without seeing other tourists. People get more excited seeing lion. And we’ve always had unrestricted access to Lewa anyway. So having the rhino here won’t make a lot of difference. A lot of our guests will still go down to Lewa anyway.

People spend a lot of money on a quality safari, and for that sort of money people are going to want to know what the money’s doing. We’re going to make that a lot more clear on our website: what we do with the net revenue. Because we’re running the whole thing and it’s not for profit, all the profits go back into conservation, we’re going to make that public. That’s going to set some challenges for other people, because it’s going to be so transparent.

Rhino monitor on neighbouring Lewa conservancy

How confident are you that the introduction will be successful?

Everything we do is in full partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service. It’s been a long drawn out process, they’ve done endless assessments of Borana’s suitability for rhino. These are processes you have to go through.

We’ll have 14 Kenya Police Reservists here, we’ll do the best job we can, but we’re not under any illusions that we can guarantee that all of the rhino here will be safe all of the time. Every single rhino sanctuary in Kenya has now lost rhino. We’ll need to work closely with KWS.

What could be done to make hosting rhinos a more economic proposition?

[Having rhinos] makes no economic sense whatsoever. We’re working on an economic case for Laikipia, and we’d like to get to the stage where we can present it to government. We should be getting tax incentives, subsidies.

What about legalising horn trade?

That would be one absolutely excellent solution. You’ve got something that’s immeasurably valuable. If we could sell rhino horn at even 50 per cent of the market price and reinvest it into conservation it’s got to be a good thing. If it is so in demand and people are paying that kind of money, we can’t be under an illusion that that demand is going to go away. But I don’t think it will ever happen.

In Kenya all wildlife is government property. Would private ownership help?

That’s why South Africa has seen a 4000 per cent increase in wildlife numbers in a period when Kenya has seen a decline – because there’s no ownership here. A lot of communities view wildlife as a liability, not as an asset. Here in Laikipia, elephant go off a ranch and destroy crops belonging to a small scale farmer and wipe out his entire annual income in a night, and the rancher says well it’s not my animal, it’s not my fault. With that ownership there would come responsibility. It’s got to be a good thing.

For more information about Borana visit www.borana.co.ke

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