Eight critically endangered black rhinos died after being moved to a new reserve in southern Kenya, the government said on Friday, doubling the number of deaths from similar operations in the previous dozen years.
Kenya’s Tourism and Wildlife Minister Najib Balala ordered the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to “immediately suspend the ongoing translocation of black rhinos following the death of eight of them,” according to a ministry statement.
KWS, the government body responsible for the country’s wildlife, has not commented on the deaths.
The relocation of endangered animals—known as translocation—involves putting them to sleep for the journey and then reviving them in a process which carries risks.
But the loss of so many in one go is unprecedented.
Between 2005 and 2017 a total of 149 rhinos have been moved in this way, with eight deaths, a mortality figure that has now doubled.
The black rhinos were moved from Nairobi and Lake Nakuru national parks to Tsavo East last month in an operation trumpeted Balala.
The tourism ministry said “preliminary investigations” suggested the rhinos may have died of “salt poisoning” after drinking different water in their new environment.
A full report is due to be produced next week the ministry said, adding “disciplinary action will definitely be taken, if the findings point towards negligence or un professional conduct on the part of any KWS officers.”
Prominent Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu said officials must take responsibility and explain what went wrong, and quickly.
“Rhinos have died, we have to say it openly when it happens, not a week later or a month later,” she said.
“Something must have gone wrong, and we want to know what it is.” Save the Rhinos estimates there are fewer than 5,500 black rhinos in the world, all of them in Africa, while Kenya’s black rhino population stands at 750, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
According to KWS figures, nine rhinos were killed in Kenya last year.
In May, three more were shot dead inside a specially-protected sanctuary in northern Kenya and their horns removed, while in March the last male northern white rhino on earth, an elderly bull named Sudan, was put down by Kenyan vets after falling ill.